In 1937—long before he was signing midgets to one-day contracts and inciting riots with Disco Demolition Night promotions—Bill Veeck had a hand in another brilliant baseball marketing flourish. As a front-office functionary for the Chicago Cubs, Veeck planted the ivy that would festoon the outfield walls of Wrigley Field. As the team's owner at the time told Harper's Magazine: "The fun ... the sunshine, the relaxation. Our idea is to get the public to go see a ball game, win or lose."
The ivy flourishes today. So does a baseball experience that has little to do with the final numbers posted on the hand-operated scoreboard. Asked to explain the team's legendary futility, longtime broadcaster Jack Brickhouse memorably remarked, "Everyone's entitled to a bad century." Well, it's been 102 years now since the Cubs' last World Series title. They still draw loyal fans for sunshine, afternoon baseball and Old Style beer inside that same gem of a stadium, where they've played since 1916. Winning is optional.
Or was, anyway. "The whole lovable losers thing? I hate it," says Tom Ricketts, the Cubs' new chairman, who, with family members, bought the team, Wrigley Field and a 25% stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago from the Tribune Company for $845 million last year. He rejects that Wrigley is problematic: a venue so pleasant, it blunts a sense of urgency. "I think people would have an even better experience if there were more winning," he says.
It's not that Ricketts doesn't empathize with—or understand—the long-suffering fan. He's one himself. He fell hard for the Cubs while attending the University of Chicago (where he received undergraduate and MBA degrees) in the mid-1980s and even met his wife, Cecelia, in the Wrigley centerfield bleachers. During a game last week Ricketts, 44, wore not only a blue fleece Cubs pullover but also a corporate ID around his neck held by a lanyard reading CUBS: IT'S A WAY OF LIFE. He watched not from the isolation of an owner's box but from a front-row seat directly behind the team's on-deck circle. Between innings he roamed the upper stands handing out baseballs and posing for photos. "The fans' fine motor skills can get [shaky] as the games go on," he observed.
But—in a Bill Murray meets Bill James kind of way—Ricketts is also a businessman, specifically a data-driven "quant guy." While some of his wealth comes from TD Ameritrade, the online brokerage company started by his father, J. Joseph, Ricketts multiplied his own fortune as cofounder of Incapital LLC, a Chicago investment bank. He looks for inefficiencies. He thinks about game theory. He tosses off terms like "regression models" and "delta analysis." As Lou Piniella, the Cubs' manager, put it last week, "He's a fan, but he's a real businessperson. Talk to Tom and you can tell he's real, you know, mathematical."
The Rickettses have already started changing the culture—or trying to. One of their first moves was to purge the clubhouse of ice cream, soda and candy. They also hired a nutritional consultant. This was at the behest of Todd Ricketts, Tom's brother, a fitness enthusiast, who rightfully wondered whether a healthier, more energized team didn't stand a better chance of optimizing performance.
Ricketts's desire for efficiency is not without merit. The Cubs have the highest payroll in the National League, at $144 million, a third of which is being squandered on three of the worst contracts in the game: those of Alfonso Soriano ($90 million through 2014), Carlos Zambrano ($53.8 million through '12) and Aramis Ramirez ($32.4 million through '12). Though Ricketts vows to leave the baseball decisions to Cubs G.M. Jim Hendry, any moves will be subject to rigorous analysis. "Hopefully over time," says Ricketts, "we'll be known as a team that uses models as well as anybody."
It all makes for an intriguing culture clash. The new ownership brings rational business principles to bear; yet the whole "Cubs experience" is inherently irrational. (Put it this way: Who among us would return enthusiastically to a restaurant, knowing that out of 162 meals, 80 or so would disappoint us?) Judging from the warm reception Ricketts gets walking the concourses, fans are receptive to his approach.
Last Wednesday the Cubs lost to the Nationals 3--2, stranding runner after runner. On the other hand, it was a gorgeous day and the game drew 36,660 fans. Few of them betrayed much anguish as they left. Tom Ricketts, though, was an exception. "I consider myself a pretty even-keeled guy," he says. "But how many one-run games are we gonna lose?"
Then again, as a seasoned businessman, he can find solace in recalling the standard disclaimer that comes with every investment: Past performance is not indicative of future results.