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Wrigley Field Expansion Still Delayed By Legal Threats from Rooftop Bleachers

Milwaukee Brewers v Chicago Cubs

The rooftop bleachers on top of buildings beyond the outfield walls are one of the unique aspects of Wrigley Field. For about $100 (much more for big games, less if you get a Groupon during the week), fans get all you can eat and drink — primarily of the crappy burger and light beer variety — and a nosebleed view. The group of rooftop building owners make plenty of money from their far away perch — so much so that in 2004, they reached a settlement to provide 17% of their gross revenues to the Chicago Cubs for twenty years. (This has reportedly amounted to as much as $4 million per season.)

In exchange for that amount, the Cubs had to make concessions about expansion and what could or could not be built to block the rooftop views. Exactly what those concessions were, and for how long they bound the Cubs, is at issue now. The rooftop owners say this treaty would be violated by the proposed construction of a 650-foot advertising billboard in right field and Jumbotron in left, and have threatened additional legal action. The Cubs originally hoped to begin their $500 million renovation in and around Wrigley Field already, but the construction has not yet begun because of the showdown with the rooftop owners.

The squabbling has really been going on for decades, but intensified last week when talks broke down. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, who bought the team in early 2009, is clearly unhappy with the rooftop terms he inherited from the Tribune Company. That displeasure is on display with the latest developments, which include the heated signage negotiations and comments — “It’s not like we can just write them a check” — from the Cubs convention last month that were perceived as derogatory. Reading between the lines, it certainly appears as though the rooftops will be severely marginalized when the deal expires in 2023.

CSN Chicago’s David Kaplan got his hands on the contract and it appears the Cubs may have a loophole in the deal that would allow them to erect the billboard, or anything really, absent rooftop owner agreement if there is government approval.

6.6 The Cubs shall not erect windscreens or other barriers to obstruct the views of the Rooftops, provided however that temporary items such as banners, flags and decorations for special occasions, shall not be considered as having been erected to obstruct views of the Rooftops. Any expansion of Wrigley Field approved by governmental authorities shall not be a violation of this agreement, including this section.

In addition to the government approval provision, there are gray areas as to whether the franchise is liable to repay royalties beyond the first eight years of the contract (which have passed), and whether the signs constitute “expansion” of the ballpark if they’re erected prior to the other planned changes at Wrigley Field.

Kaplan discussed the issues with an attorney, who thought an arbitrator and/or court would probably rule in favor of the Cubs, but that the case could take awhile and wouldn’t necessarily be a “slam dunk”. Therefore, if the revenue from this sign is necessary to fund broader expansions, that option might not be palatable for the organization. Nevertheless, the Cubs recently applied for a government permit to build the right field sign.

Public sentiment in Chicago strongly favors the Cubs, under the ostensible belief that they will be reinvesting new revenue towards fielding a competitive roster (though these claims may be dubious). More than that, people are just tired of constantly hearing about this petty disagreement amongst the über-rich. Cutting through all of the posturing and legalese from both sides of the dispute, it seems like everyone would benefit from a settlement.

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