Hernan Cortés and the Chicago Cubs: the ships have been burned

In 1519, as the story goes, a rebellious 34-year old Hernan Cortés reached Veracruz.  After landing, and preparing to march on the Aztec capital, Cortés sank his ships (most stories report burning, though this is not confirmed) as a way of sending a message to his men:  we have reached the point of no return … we either succeed or die … retreat is not an option.  It is a classic story from history of a ballsy move, of sending an unambiguous message to your followers … it can also be interpreted as a story of motivation through fear.

First, we’ll take Tenochtitlan … then we’ll take Ber-linnnn.


The Cubs may have just burned the ships…

Just two years ago, Tom Ricketts et al, secured a purchase of the Chicago Cubs for a roughly $900 million.  That’s a lot of money, but it needs to be kept in mind:  This wasn’t Bill Gates throwing $900 million away (when you have $66 billion in the bank, $900 million isn’t an end-of-the-world amount of money to lose).  This was a guy whose family is worth a net $1 billion.  This guy didn’t cough up the entire $900 million, but he committed a large percent of his personal and family holdings to the sale.  In short, if the Cubs don’t continue to generate $$, the Ricketts are in big trouble.

This past weekend, the Chicago Cubs announced that they will be spending $300 million to spruce up Wrigley Field.

On the list of things to do:  wider concourses, more bathrooms (hopefully also to make their bathrooms no longer remind people of films that include prison rape scenes), upgrade to home clubhouse, replacement of the roof, adding a rooftop terrace

Pictured:  artists conception of new Wrigley Field concourse

Not pictured:  World Series championship banners


…oh, and they are also planning to add an LED scoreboard.

On the one hand, welcome Chicago Cubs to the 20th 21st century.  Some of these upgrades are long overdo …

… but consider this … the The Ricketts are now sinking more money into the stadium (a full additional one-third of their original investment) … upgrades that will not substantially increase seating (read:  this will not substantially increase revenue).

The Ricketts have made it clear that the City of Chicago will need to allow more advertising in the stadium to raise money.  That, on the surface, sounds smart.

But $300 million is likely to be an underestimation … Wrigley Field is a bonafide National and City of Chicago Landmark.  If you want to do just about anything, it has to go through a lot of hurdles to get clearance (read:  $$$).  Also, this isn’t as simple as slapping a new scoreboard here or there … this is going to require special work dealing with an old building, most of which cannot be damaged in any substantial way.  Lots and lots of TLC.  This is hardly going to be cheap.

However … any Cubs fan who is sober and in a state of reality will tell you … a sizable percentage of the people who come out to Wrigley Field are senior citizens who show up to take in the good ol’ ballpark, and are not actually paying $45 for a ticket to cheer on a team whose record for failure is longer than the Titanic‘s … they show up to see a ball park that still looks like ones from the 1950s and 40s.  Read:  no advertising, no lame stadium rock music, no electronic scoreboard.

If the Cubs go forward with this, they could see an increase in what they are already seeing:  a lack of sold out games … It used to be the one thing Cubs fans could razz Sox fans about, but the last two years have seen the Cubs forced to turn to advertising to sell tickets because the Wrigley faithful have been a little less faithful of late.  Improving the concourses and bathrooms would be a major step forward for the Cubs … one that their fans would appreciate.  Turning the playing area into a mall would, I suspect, drive a certain percentage away.

I suspect that the Ricketts family have thought through this risk … so why do it, especially in an unsure economy, and in an era where overall following of baseball is lagging?

I think this is a sign of commitment … if the Cubs do this, the only way they could be sure to pack the fans back in would be to win a World Series.  This means that the Cubs are banking their entire economic future on Theo Epstein working his magic to build a World Series champion and bring the fans back with the potential for loss that could be coming.  Unlike the White Sox, with the money being invested, a World Series along may not be enough … the Cubs will need to do something they have no done in decades:  sustained winning paired with routine playoff appearances, at least one of which soon has to be a World Series appearance, and relatively soon, a World Series championship.  In the absence of those developments, the Cubs could see not only that their continued losing continues to be a mockery, but the things they have rarely needed to worry about:  a sustained fan base and an endless supply of cash, could become issues.

The Cubs have burned their ships … it is win, or die trying.

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 03:  Manager Ozzie Guillen #13 of the Chicago White Sox  talks to the media before the Chicago Cubs game on July 3, 2011 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

I think I said that once …


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