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Cubs reject billboard deal from Wrigleyville rooftop clubs

A group youth watch game from rooftop bleacher WavelAve. Wrigley Field Wednesday April 6 2011 Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

A group of youth watch the game from a rooftop bleacher on Waveland Ave. at Wrigley Field, Wednesday, April 6, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 27, 2013 6:12AM

Rooftop club owners on Friday pitched their plan to generate $17.9 million a year to bankroll the renovation of Wrigley Field — by putting seven digital signs on top of their buildings instead of inside the ballpark blocking their views — but they struck out with the Cubs.

City Hall sources called the rooftop plan a positive development that shows “there is a path to get this done” that may well include additional signage inside and outside the ballpark.

“They’re obviously serious about trying to resolve this,” said a mayoral confidante, who asked to remain anonymous.

But, a compromise that generates enough money to renovate Wrigley and allows the rooftops to survive and thrive remains a work in progress.

“We don’t think their numbers are real,” said Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts.

Arguing that it’s “all about broadcast views,” Culloton insisted that far less revenue could be generated by rooftop signs not visible during most television shots during Cubs games.

“There’s a lot more shots of the stands and the field than there are wide shots of the neighborhood. Advertisers are going to value that differently. That’s not to say there is no money [for rooftop signs], but it’s going to be less valuable,” Culloton said.

He further argued that the rooftops are demanding an extension — as long as 30 years — of an agreement that requires the clubs to share 17 percent of their revenue with the Cubs.

“More of the same is a non-starter,” Culloton said, demanding a bigger cut for the Cubs.

At a news conference at Murphy’s Bleachers, rooftop owners argued that any attempt by the Cubs to block their views would violate the 2004 ordinance that landmarked historic elements of Wrigley Field as well as their 20-year agreement with the Cubs.

“We have an agreement with a few more years left. We have a right to defend our position,” said Cubby Bear owner George Loukas, threatening to resurrect a court fight that once saw the Cubs file a copyright infringement lawsuit against the rooftops.

Loukas noted that rooftop owners have spent $50 million to bring their buildings up to the city’s rigid safety standards.

“We had to tear out every piece of wood in the building. We had to have steel and rebarb to support all of our structures. We sacrificed a lot. We’re indebted quite a bit. We’re looking to continue our end of the agreement. We want to work hand-in-hand with the Cubs,” he said.

Beth Murphy, owner of Murphy’s Bleachers, said signs inside the ballpark violate the “spirit of the settlement” that resolved rooftop wars.

“Maybe the words could be stronger, but I believe we were not meant to be blocked,” Murphy said.

She added, “We don’t want to be put out of business by signs in front of us. ... There’s no reason for one business to put out the other if it doesn’t have to happen.”

In a study conducted for the rooftops, the Platt Retail Institute concluded that seven, 20 x 7-foot digital signs placed atop rooftop clubs but beneath the seating could generate $17.9 million in annual revenue.

The study was conducted after comparing advertising rates generated by ten major market teams.

Digital billboards are currently limited to designated sites near Chicago area expressways — and there was a big debate before the City Council approved that plan.

Rooftop advertising is also prohibited on privately-owned buildings.

Those are two major hurdles to overcome. But, Murphy argued that it’s worth it to preserve an atmosphere that other Major League ballparks have tried desperately to mimic.

“There is a reason that the Cubs pull when they have losing seasons—and we’ve had quite a few in a row now. It’s the synergy between the neighborhood and the ballpark,” she said.

Last weekend, Ricketts abruptly ended his multi-year quest for a public subsidy to help bankroll a sorely-needed renovation of 99-year-old Wrigley.

He offered to go it alone — and build a $200 million hotel development on McDonald’s property he purchased across the street from the stadium — provided the city lift restrictions on outfield signs and night games and opens Sheffield Avenue for street fairs on game days.

The Cubs’ offer was music to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ears. The mayor offered to play ball and urged the parties to “finish this up.”

In 2004, the Cubs and the rooftops struck a deal after an acrimonious dispute that saw the team put up windscreens to obscure rooftop views and file a copyright-infringement lawsuit designed to put the private clubs out of business.

Rooftop owners agreed to pay the Cubs 17 percent of their gross revenues for the next 20 years. In exchange, the Cubs agreed to market the rooftops and adjust the compensation rate downward if a 2006 bleacher expansion hurt views.

Despite the agreement, rooftop wars have become an almost annual rite of spring.

Friday’s developments threaten to open a new front in the ongoing war — especially after Loukas and Murphy said they “absolutely” believe Ricketts’ ultimate goal is to drive down the value of their properties so he can gobble up buildings the Cubs should have purchased years ago.

To bolster the claims, Murphy told a story about former Tribune Co. CEO Sam Zell’s first guided tour of Wrigley Field when the Tribune Co. still owned the Cubs.

“He turned to the [tour guide] and said, ‘How long have you worked for the Chicago Cubs?’ And the [young man] said, ‘Just a couple of years.’ And [Zell] said, ‘That’s good because I was wondering who the bleeping idiot is that didn’t buy all the real estate around here,’” Murphy said.

Local Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) has declared his opposition to signs inside the ballpark that block the rooftop’s birdseye view. He has received at least $171,356 in direct campaign contributions from rooftop club owners and another $15,675 to the alderman’s 44th Ward Democratic Organization.

In a statement released Friday, Tunney said he hopes the rooftop advertising plan “can be part of the larger picture for preserving Wrigley.”

He added, “I am supportive of ideas to help renovate the stadium. ... I remain committed to working with the Cubs and small businesses in the neighborhood.  Most importantly, we will continue to engage our residents in discussions concerning Wrigley Field and their quality of life.”

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