Just 72 hours before Opening Day, a federal judge on Thursday handed the Chicago Cubs the big win they were looking for — giving them the go-ahead to erect outfield signs that will block the views into Wrigley Field from many of Wrigleyville’s iconic rooftop clubs.
In a ruling that likely represents a decisive turning point in the Cubs’ long, bitter and very public battle with the rooftop owners over the $375 million redevelopment of Wrigley, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall ruled that the plan to install outfield advertising signs and a video board neither violated federal antitrust law nor a 2004 revenue-sharing agreement with the rooftop owners.
Though renovations at Wrigley were delayed over the winter, the Cubs are now expected to quickly install the signs, a move the rooftop owners say will overnight make it impossible for them to sell tickets and give the Cubs monopoly control of ticket pricing.
That, they say, will in turn spell the death knell for the rooftop businesses, whose long-distance views into Wrigley from across Sheffield Avenue are part of the ballpark’s historic appeal.
But in her keenly awaited 35-page ruling, littered with baseball puns, Kendall said rooftop owners can continue to sue the Cubs for their lost revenues, and that they can operate as regular Wrigleyville bars in the meantime.
“One might argue, for example, that the patrons who go to the Rooftops do not really go to watch the game at all, and when they do, they see very little of it anyway,” the judge wrote in one pointed barb. “In short, being in close vicinity to the game with fresh air, alcohol, and good food might be sufficient to run a business — maybe not the business they are in now — but certainly a business.”
In an emailed statement Thursday night, Cubs spokesman Julian Green said: “The Cubs are grateful the Court today declined to stop the important work of preserving and expanding the Friendly Confines. We are excited to open the 2015 baseball season on Sunday in historic Wrigley Field. . . . We look forward to moving ahead with the expansion to protect and preserve Wrigley Field for our fans and our team.”
The rooftop owners had argued that a 2004 revenue-sharing agreement that resolved an earlier dispute over the rooftop owners’ viewing rights and was not due to expire until 2023 prevented the Cubs from installing the signs.
And they alleged that the Cubs broke federal anti-trust law when they put the squeeze on the rooftop owners by ordering them to sell up at cut-rate prices or see their views of the game blocked.
But Kendall said the rooftop owners were “sophisticated” businessmen who should have worded the fine print of the 2004 contract more carefully and can’t now come crying to court because they screwed up.
Siding with the Cubs on every major issue in the case, she said the rooftop owner took too long to seek an injunction, and she rejected the rooftop owners’ argument that it was possible for the Cubs to hold an illegal monopoly on Cubs game tickets.
“While the Court accepts that there are some die-hard Cubs fans that would never attend a White Sox game, that does not mean that Cubs games constitute their own market,” she wrote, adding that Major League Baseball is in any case exempt from anti-trust law.
On Friday, Edward McCarthy, owner of the rooftop businesses Skybox on Sheffield and Lakeview Baseball Club, issued a statement saying he would pursue no further legal action at this time.
In that statement, he warned his employees that “there will be some difficult times ahead of us, as well as some exciting ones. We have the best locations and some great ideas for reinventing these businesses.” And he promised his customers he would “provide the best fan experience at the highest level of service that we can.”
The judge’s ruling comes after a contentious hearing last month at which lawyers for the rooftop owners painted Crane Kenney, the Cubs president of business operations, as a scheming bully who snarled, “We control the city,” in an attempt to strong-arm the rooftop owners into selling their properties to the Cubs.
Attorneys for the Cubs, for their part, contended that the Cubs were merely exercising their property rights by redeveloping Wrigley in a way that blocked the rooftop views. They rubbished the rooftop owners’ claims that the Cubs were attempting to create an illegal monopoly over tickets to watch Cubs games, telling the judge, “The Cubs own Cubs baseball.”
The public relations battle was just as fierce. Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts compared the rooftop owners to someone watching a stranger’s premium cable TV package through a window, and the Cubs suggested that the revenue they were losing to the rooftop owners prevented them from fielding a winning team.
The rooftop owners took another beanball to the chin last week, when one of them, R. Marc Hamid, 46, was indicted on charges that he defrauded the Cubs out of $600,000 he owed them under the 2004 revenue-sharing deal.
But the rooftop owners also scored some hits on the Cubs, accusing the team of attempting to force them to collude in a price-fixing scam. Only once the rooftop owners refused to participate in the scam did the Cubs move to block their views, with Kenney boasting that the Cubs had the sway they needed over City Hall to redevelop Wrigley and exclude the rooftop owners, they alleged.
Kendall’s ruling does not affect several rooftops already controlled by the Cubs’ owners. The views from those rooftops were not threatened by the Cubs plans.
The Cubs play their first home game of the season against the Cardinals at 7:05 p.m. on Easter Sunday.