Owners of sports teams do what they want to do. We know this.
If they want to raise ticket prices, they do it, no matter how loudly fans complain about the difficulty of paying their mortgages.
If owners want to sign players who abuse their wives and girlfriends, they do it, no matter how many pickets are outside the ballpark.
If owners want to move their teams to other cities, they do it, no matter how hard fans cry into the throwback jerseys they just purchased for $99 each.
But there’s one thing owners won’t do: Sign quarterback Colin Kaepernick. NFL owners remain deathly afraid of the fan backlash they think will come if they add Kaepernick, who angered many Americans by kneeling in protest during the national anthem. He’s as divisive as any person in the country, and owners, in their darkest moments, envision fans boycotting games and seats looking lonesome. Nothing frightens captains of industry more than a loss of revenue.
That’s why the Ricketts family’s decision to host an event for big-money supporters of President Donald Trump at a Cubs office building was so out of character for the owner of a sports franchise. If there’s a person more polarizing than Kaepernick, it’s Trump.
Yet there was the pro-Trump group, hosted by Ricketts sibling Todd, enjoying itself at the office building next to Wrigley on Saturday and at the Cardinals-Cubs game later. When news of the event broke, the fan outcry was immediate and loud. The Rickettses responded by ringing a bell to have their snifters refilled.
There are two ways to look at this. One is that you have to give the family credit for the guts/gall/obliviousness it took to potentially alienate the part of their fan base that despises Trump. Judging by the president’s low approval ratings, that’s probably a significant number of people. The other view is that the Rickettses are completely out of their minds. Why would a business do something that potentially could harm its bottom line?
A third, more cynical view is that the Ricketts family knows that, no matter how strong your aversion is to Trump, your love for the Cubs overcomes all. Let’s go with that one.
Think of the things that happened just in the last five months that might have turned off some portion of the Cubs’ customers:
• A website released family patriarch Joe Ricketts’ racist and Islamophobic emails.
• The Cubs’ decision to stand by infielder Addison Russell, whom Major League Baseball suspended for 40 games for violating its domestic-violence policy.
Despite all that, the Rickettses are counting on fans sprinting through the ballpark gates the way they always do. So far this season, the Cubs’ average attendance at Wrigley is 36,963, the fourth-highest in baseball but about 1,800 a game below what they finished with last season. Is the decline because of the overall decline in major-league attendance? Is it because of early bad-weather games? Or is fan dissatisfaction with ownership turning Wrigleyville into a red state playing a role?
The latest controversy made me wonder what it would take for Cubs fans to stay away from Wrigley. Losing didn’t work. Decades of bad baseball didn’t deter fans from regularly seeking sunshine and ivy.
Only one thing came to mind: Prohibition Saturdays. No beer as a nod to our alcohol-abstinent forebearers. (I’m sorry to unnerve you like that. And there you were, minding your own business.)
I’m not convinced the Trump event will do the trick. The Cubs were in people’s blood long before the Ricketts family elbowed its way into the equation. It will take a lot of mental rewiring for fans to make the decision to stay away. Count on attendance surpassing 3 million again.
In defense of ownership’s decision to use the facilities for a pro-Trump group, Cubs president Theo Epstein asserted that Wrigley is a private venue, which it is in the broadest sense of the term. But Cubs fans rightly think the stadium is theirs. They grew up there. They won and lost there. Some even fell in love there. Nothing is private about a ballpark after you’ve left blood and tears there.
By the way, every time the Rickettses do something controversial, Epstein, a baseball man, shouldn’t have to be the one to explain or defend their actions. If team chairman Tom Ricketts is the most accessible owner in sports, as he claims to be, he might want to stop hiding behind Epstein. Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow in February, and we don’t hear from Tom for six months.
Lots of people don’t like it when athletes or sportswriters speak up about social issues. I get the sense that some of the same people who screamed at columnists to stick to sports with the Kaepernick controversy are applauding the Rickettses for supporting Trump so publicly. Call it a hunch.
I wish we could talk just about baseball. But the Ricketts family keeps making that harder and harder to do. And they don’t seem to care.