Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman and primary owner of the Bulls and White Sox franchises has brought trophies to Chicago. To be specific, six basketball championships (1991–1993 and 1996–1998) and one World Series title (2005). As the owner of those teams, he paid a lot for those championships. A recent Tribune/WGN-TV joint investigation revealed Illinois taxpayers did too. About $6.9 million of taxpayer money was used in the building of Bacardi at the Park, a 10,000 square foot upscale restaurant across the street from U.S. Cellular Field. And what percent of those profits go back to the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the government agency that funded it and also owns U.S. Cellular Field? Let’s ask Jim Thompson, the agency’s board chairman at the time the deal was made.
“We said to Jerry, ‘Jerry can we have part of the profits?’ and he said no,” former Gov. Jim Thompson… said in an interview. “We said, OK.’
This isn’t Jerry Reinsdorf’s first time leveraging the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA) to get what he wants. He threatened to relocate his baseball franchise to Tampa Bay in the late 1980s but then-governor (guess who?) Jim Thompson lobbied successfully for the creation of the above mentioned ISFA. That agency then funded the building of U.S. Cellular Field as the new home of the White Sox. Public funding of a baseball stadium isn’t unique but the way he got it done coupled with the more recent revelation of how Bacardi at the Park was paid for should make taxpayers view Reinsdorf in a more negative light.
Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts enters his third off-season as owner of the team and faces the challenge of rebuilding his ancient ballpark. How he funds the construction will either grow his goodwill with Cub fans or make all Illinois taxpayers compare him to crude businessman Jerry Reinsdorf. Tom Ricketts’s first attempt at securing public funding for rebuilding historic Wrigley Field was a non-starter with ex-Mayor Richard Daley in 2010. He begins discussions again with new Mayor Rahm Emanuel who seems more receptive to helping the Cubs. This is likely because reports indicate Ricketts is proposing to fund at least half of the $400 million rebuilding project privately, a significant increase from his original proposal to the city. Like all sports franchises, the Cubs will do what is needed to get the best deal for themselves. But to garner some goodwill from citizens, Ricketts must not utilize scare tactics to get what he wants. Threatening to move the team to Schaumburg or lobbying politicians like a snake-in-the-grass oil executive isn’t acceptable. All the praise he is receiving from the Theo Espstein hiring will quickly evaporate if he handles it poorly. Ricketts is obviously a smart businessman and should find creative ways to fund as much of the renovation as possible on his own. Whether it be more Wrigley Field advertising or negotiating better TV and radio deals, there are options to get it done. Let’s hope Ricketts grows into an owner everyone in Chicago, not just Cub fans, can come to respect.