CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs, one of the most popular and lucrative sports franchises in the United States despite their unmatched record of failure, may be getting financial help to renovate historic Wrigley Field from its cash-strapped city.
As the Cubs take the field this week for what may be the 104th straight season without a World Series championship, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has triggered speculation — and raised some eyebrows — by confirming that city officials and the Cub-owning Ricketts family are in the "final stages" of talks on a renovation plan for the 98-year-old ballpark that could include public help.
Neither Emanuel nor anyone else is talking specifics. Given the economic climate, the last thing public officials want to start throwing around is any hint that taxpayers struggling to pay their bills might be asked to help a business that attracts more fans than all but a handful of teams.
"This is not in the course of history the best time to ask for public money for a sports facility," said Al Yellon, who has a Cubs-themed website. "The economy doesn't really support that."
At the same time, Wrigley Field is one of the top tourist attractions in Chicago and that has been a huge reason why the surrounding neighborhood is one of the most popular spots to live. It is venerable and then some -- in the major leagues, only Fenway Park in Boston is older. Fans may flock there, but when they arrive they grumble about the lines outside the antiquated restrooms, the cramped concession areas, and recall how the team had to install nets to catch falling pieces of concrete.
Ricketts has made some obvious changes since he took over, including a patio in right field and a new video scoreboard, small by major league standards, down the right field line that is new this year. There's that Toyota sign in left field, too.
But team officials say the bulk of the money Ricketts has spent on the park, about $10 million to$15 million a year, has been spent on things like plumbing and the structure itself. Translation: It would be nice to do more.
About the only thing Emanuel made clear is that he is not about to let the city pay for renovations of a park to free up Cubs money for investments beyond the ivy-covered walls.
"I will not put my money in their field so they can take their money and invest around the field," he told reporters.
A spokeswoman for the mayor, Sarah Hamilton, tamped down any expectation that a deal is imminent after "productive" discussions. It was the same from the Cubs.
"We continue to have discussions with the city, state, county and our Wrigleyville neighbors to ensure Wrigley Field remains a leading source of tourism, tax revenue and employment," Julian Green, a team spokesman, said in a prepared statement. "We know efforts like these take time and we will continue to work hard to reach a consensus."
All that tiptoeing is understandable and stands in stark contrast to the days when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was captured on secretly recorded tapes instructing aides to pressure the Tribune Co., which owned the team at the time, to fire unfriendly editorial writers before he would OK a deal to provide state assistance for Wrigley.
After all, helping a team that drew more than 3 million fans last year and is listed by Forbes as one of the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world could turn into a public relations disaster.
"It's clearly a tougher sell than the late '90s, when everybody and their brother got municipal funding for stadiums," said Tim Cummons, who specializes in sports franchises for a financial advisory firm, Stout Risius Ross. "When communities are cutting back on spending, when more people are out of work, it gets to be a harder sell."
According to a person familiar with the negotiations, City Hall has floated an idea that is a variation of one that the Cubs themselves have been floating for a couple years: the use of the amusement tax that comes from ticket sales.
After his family purchased the team in 2009 for $845 million — then a record for a major league franchise — team chairman Tom Ricketts proposed using $200 million in state bonds to help renovate the park, with the team repaying that money with the amusement tax collected from fans coming through the turnstiles.
That idea went nowhere, as both Gov. Pat Quinn and then-Mayor Richard Daley said they could not back a plan that calls for the state to issue bonds at a time when the state and city were in such dire economic straits.
The idea has been revived. Emanuel is insisting that he would only agree to such a deal if the Cubs guarantee a minimum payment regardless of how much money the tax brings in, according to the person who was not authorized to publicly discuss the negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"The mayor wants them (the Ricketts family) to put some skin in the game," the person said. "He wants a guaranteed level of payment made to the city regardless of the performance of that (amusement tax)."
One fan is optimistic that a deal can happen because Emanuel is something that his predecessor was not: A North Sider and a Cubs fan.
"Mayor Daley would never have gone for this," said Rich Kaempfer, who created, justonebadcentury.com, the logo of which is a Cub with a big tear on its cheek.