Commentary

Empty feeling

Cubs' dwindling local fan base screams for new ways to excite the masses

Updated: July 25, 2011, 9:22 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Chicago Cubs FansBrian D. Kersey/Getty ImagesPlenty of good seats are available on many days at Wrigley Field during this disappointing season.

BREAKING NEWS: The biggest draw for the Chicago Cubs will always be Wrigley Field.

I know this. You know this. The Cubs know this. The seagulls know this.

The Cubs could field a modern-day equivalent to Murderers' Row and 37 percent of the crowd wouldn't be able to name three players on the field without a scorecard, iPhone app and George Will whispering in their ear.

I say 37 percent because that's the magic number for the Cubs. According to the Cubs' marketing studies, that chunk of their crowd is from out of state, mostly tourists. The Cubs were averaging 36,853 fans heading into Friday's game, so that's a pretty big chunk of out-of-state fans.

In one sense, it proves what a tourist draw Wrigley Field is (which is why the Cubs want city tax money to subsidize renovations), but that study also proves the point of Cubs detractors who argue that a big chunk of the fan base is made up of tourists and dilettantes, people with no real vested interest in the team.

But even with a steady flow of Iowans and Texans, a bad team and high ticket prices almost assures thousands of empty seats most days -- the team is down 1,868 fewer fans per game than last year, and if that holds up, it means more than a 3,600 per-game decrease from 2009.

Church groups from Dubuque come and go, but the Cubs need desperate help to keep drawing in the locals; especially the real fans, who are both impassioned and disaffected with the state of this crumbling civic treasure (the Cubs, not Wrigley).

Need a fresh example? Before Wednesday's steam-bath matinee against Philadelphia, I did a "best available" search for 19 contiguous seats (the maximum amount) and found 19 such tickets in Section 239 -- terrace reserved seats overlooking right field.

For Saturday's "marquee" priced game against last-place Houston, you could get 19 bleacher seats for the awe-inspiring price of $1,629.45, or $85.76 a ticket. For comparison, Lambeau Field's main bowl is also bleachers, and the most expensive is $87.

You could say weather, hot or cold, scares buyers away, but I don't buy that totally. Weather certainly affects no-shows, but some of those seats should have been sold in February or March. But there's no buzz around this team, and hasn't been for years.

The Cubs' marketing department is trying its hardest with unusual promotional items, like Wednesday's "chip-and-dip platter" sponsored by Lay's and this weekend's "thumb foam finger" sponsored by a jeans company. No, it's not "Bad Idea Jeans."

The chip-and-dip platter is so dumb, it's almost inspired. I heard Wrigley Field security was especially pleased with the possibility of 10,000 projectiles, which is why they gave the first 10,000 fans vouchers to pick up the platters after the game.

So in the spirit of giving away heavy Frisbees to disappointed fans of a bad team, here are my marketing ideas to keep the house full the last two months, so Jim Hendry (Tom Ricketts willing) can throw some Ben Franklins around in the winter and things can get better.

[+] EnlargeStarlin Castro
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesStarlin Castro has given fans plenty to cheer about this season, although a recent miscue didn't amuse manager Mike Quade.

No Beanie Babies, but more giveaways: I'm not sure the prospect of not-so-fine china would've filled the house, even if it wasn't 100 degrees out. But we know what giveaways did for the Cubs in the 1990s, thanks to marketing gurus John McDonough and Jay Blunk.

Here are some "marquee" ideas:

Hang with Jim Belushi: The first 10,000 fans get to hang out with Belushi. He'll come to your seat and tell you a story about the first 500 times he's sung the seventh-inning stretch.

Miniature schooner that belong to Cubs executives: You'll feel like putting on your deck shoes and seersucker shorts and heading out on Lake Michigan. Captain's hat not included.

Alfonso Soriano's car: Actually not a miniature. Sori's got so many fancy cars, he won't miss 10,000.

Run the bases with the Cubs: No, not after the game. You get to actually pinch-run (if a Cub gets on base). If this works out, the Cubs might alter "throw out the first pitch" to "start the game."

But giveaways aren't enough. The Cubs have been proactive in creating a "fun" environment around a "terrible" team. So, here's an idea in that vein.

CubsFork The Pitchfork music festival was a success once again, with thousands of music fans filling up Union Park last week. The Cubs are getting into the block party business too, and I think they can turn that patch of concrete outside the park into a permanent party.

Bad idea? Well, we always know that nostalgia is the main drawing power for the Cubs. So let's tap into that Cubbie Blue pride with this idea.

Bring back Ryno!!!< /p>

No, not to manage. Yeah, yeah, I know his Lehigh Valley IronPigs are revolutionizing Triple-A baseball under Ryne Sandberg's Hall of Fame thumb. Most of that lineup, because it's Triple-A, is as old as I am. Triple-A managing success, as Quade is showing, means next to nothing.

The lovefest of Sandberg the Manager is obvious. He's a Hall of Famer who embodies everything Cubs fans want in a baseball player, and he activates the nostalgia switch that drives people to the park in the first place. Maybe there's a way to get him to quit the IronPigs right now while helping improve Ricketts' image.

Ricketts is starting to get pigeonholed as an amiably clueless owner (think McCaskey), which isn't quite fair, but it goes with the territory when you take on a public role. He's really (I swear) a funny, sharp guy, but his mojo is getting harshed when he hangs out with former Tribune lawyers and other buttoned-up suit types.

So Sandberg's job, effective immediately, would be to sit with Ricketts and burnish his image by osmosis. Then he could walk around the park for those "Ricketts meets the hoi polloi" handshake tours we always hear about. You can call him vice president/chief nostalgia officer.

Fans would pay to have a chance to shake his hand and tell him he's a better skipper than Quade. I know Ryno wants to manage this club, but trust me, this kind of gig is better. He wouldn't have to pencil in Alfonso Soriano during 1-for-18 slides or talk to the media, and he won't get fired, something Quade is probably going to experience. The fans can still love him and he'll never lose a game. It's perfect.

OK, that was a reach. Sandberg wouldn't quit the IronPigs to be a defacto ambassador, would he? Is Randy Hundley around?

Now that we've had our fun, here are two last ideas to boost attendance and bolster enthusiasm. These are really wacky, so suspend your disbelief in advance.

Lower ticket prices to normal levels, and spend more money to bring in, you know, good baseball players. Guys who can play defense and pitch and look interested half the time.

If you need any more revolutionary ideas, I'll be in Section 239. I hear there is plenty of room to stretch out.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.