Cubs battle over Wrigley signs with rooftop owners

Tom Ricketts watches the Cubs play the Yankees at Wrigley Field on May 20. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune)

Chicago Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts is offering a new pitch to long-suffering fans as he struggles to get a Wrigley Field renovation underway: If the rooftop owners are going to sue us anyway over blocked views into the stadium, we might as well get more of what we want in an upgraded ballpark.

To that end, he plans to submit a revised proposal to City Hall that would feature more large electronic signs, additional seats, bigger clubhouses and a relocation of the quaint bullpens from foul territory to a spot under the bleachers by removing bricks and some of the iconic ivy and covering the space with a material that would allow relievers to see onto the field, according to a high-ranking Cubs source.

If approved against what's sure to be fierce opposition, the changes would put more pressure on the rooftop club owners to reach a deal with the Ricketts family, as team officials acknowledged that more signs could further block rooftop views into Wrigley. Talks between the two sides have proved fruitless after more than a year of negotiations that continued even after city officials signed off on the Cubs' $500 million plan to remake the historic ballpark and surrounding area.

Rooftop owners, who have a revenue-sharing agreement with the team that expires at the end of 2023, countered with their own message: We'll see you in court.

"Unfortunately, this decision by the Ricketts family will now result in this matter being resolved in a court of law," said Ryan McLaughlin, spokesman for the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association.

Ricketts unveiled his latest gambit in a six-minute video to fans that was posted on the team website early Thursday.

"We've gotten nowhere in our talks with them to settle this dispute. It has to end. It's time to move forward," he said. "We need to press ahead with the expansion and the many planned improvements."

The team hopes to get a hearing before the Commission on Chicago Landmarks next month and start construction this year. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who helped the Cubs navigate city approval last year, could go to bat for the team again.

"Like all Cub fans, the mayor doesn't want to wait for next year, and if this proposal helps the Cubs get closer to a ballpark renovation this fall — and the jobs and neighborhood investments that come with it — it's worth taking a look at," Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said in a statement.

The latest approach comes as Ricketts faces pressure to get the renovation done so tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue can start rolling in, which the owners say they would use to sign better players. The team, which blew a ninth-inning lead Wednesday to the Yankees, is on pace for a sixth consecutive losing season and the fourth in a row with more than 90 losses. Attendance has slipped from 3.3 million in 2008 to 2.6 million last year.

For Ricketts, pushing ahead with the renovation could help him in the public relations battle. Now, the stalemate is framed as a battle between the superwealthy Ricketts family and well-off rooftop owners. Should the rooftop owners sue, Ricketts can note he's trying to make money-generating improvements but is being tied up in court.

Despite the lawsuit threat, Ricketts has the option of moving forward with the stadium plan approved last year during a series of votes by the Landmarks Commission, the Plan Commission and the City Council. And Ricketts previously has floated plans, including moving from iconic Wrigley to a new suburban stadium, that never went anywhere during standstill points in negotiations with rooftop owners.

Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, views Ricketts' move as a likely "negotiating position" in the dispute with the rooftop owners. But Cubs spokesman Julian Green said that wasn't the case.

"We've negotiated as far as we can go, and now it's about moving the project forward," Green said.

Ald. Patrick O'Connor, 40th, who tried to bring the two sides together on a compromise, also said the new, larger ballpark signs plan is not a negotiating tactic.

"I see this as the Cubs saying this is what we would like to get in terms of advertising in the ballpark," said O'Connor, a key Emanuel ally. "I think it's a way for the Cubs to say we're all in, this is what we want in the end."

Tunney made it clear that the Rickettses could be in for a battle. "Through lots of pain last year, we approved a very generous sign package and they haven't done anything with it," Tunney said. "I think we gave them a fair package to get going (on renovations), and I think the neighborhood gave them a lot of concessions. We rolled out the red carpet to keep the team at the historic corner of Clark and Addison."

Under the compromise plan, the Cubs are allowed to put up a 5,700-square-foot Jumbotron-like video board in left field and a 650-square-foot, illuminated script sign in right as part of a $300 million, five-year renovation of the ballpark. The Cubs also won the right to build a nearby hotel, plaza and office complex, replete with several more additional signs, at a cost of $200 million.

The revised proposal would ask for seven signs lining the outfield, including three 650-square-foot LED signs in left field, along with a video board of nearly 4,000 square feet. In right, there would be another, 2,400-square-foot video board, along with a 650-square-foot LED sign and the illuminated script sign.

Capacity at the ballpark would be increased by 600, to 42,495, with the addition of 300 new seats and 300 new standing room positions, according to the team.