Wrigley’s Rooftop Seats: From Lawn Chairs To Big Business

By Becky Yerak
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In light of the Cubs being in the World Series this year, this is a fascinating look at the business side of baseball in the Chicago neighborhood of Wrigleyville

Chicago Tribune

When the Chicago Cubs on Friday play their first World Series game in Wrigley Field since 1945, there’ll be plenty of fans who paid as much as $1,000 to watch the game from outside the Friendly Confines, atop a rooftop across the street.

A view from the cheap seats? Not quite.

Indeed, while the winner of the Cubs-Cleveland Indians Series will be decided by early next week, still playing out in a courtroom is a legal battle over the money to be made from those seats. Two rooftops, Skybox on Sheffield and Lakeview Baseball Club, filed a lawsuit last year accusing the team of, among other things, violating terms of a revenue-sharing contract and trying to monopolize the market for game tickets.

The rooftops lost the case in federal district court in Chicago, but last month filed an appeal with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Court-ordered mediation is scheduled for next month.

The rooftops weren’t always such big business.

Since the stadium’s construction in 1914, several three-flat buildings across from Wrigley on Sheffield and Waveland avenues have given rooftop spectators a view of the action inside the ballpark. During the 1929 World Series, the rooftops were packed with spectators, and during the 1938 Series, the venues were filled with “paying spectators,” the lawsuit said.

For many years, the buildings drew fans carting little more than six-packs and lawn chairs.

It was in the mid-1980s that building owners began transforming their flat-top roofs into bleacher-style grandstands, and setting up formal rooftop businesses and paid viewing.

A case in point: Wrigleyville bar Murphy’s Bleachers. It was founded in 1980 by former Chicago police Detective Jim Murphy across from Wrigley in a location previously occupied by Ernie’s Bleachers and Ray’s Bleachers, according to its website. In 1984, stairs extending to the property’s rooftop were added, said Beth Murphy, his widow.

The buildings became part of the park’s landscape. Baseball fans who watched Cubs games on superstation WGN were able to see the rooftops as a backdrop to the action on the field. The 1985 Cubs official guide included photos of fans watching games from the rooftops — just one example of the team featuring the rooftops in its marketing materials, the Skybox on Sheffield lawsuit said.

Over the next two decades, businesses and entrepreneurs snatched up the buildings, renovating or rebuilding them as their stature grew.

Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray sometimes commented on the rooftops. In 1993, a Cincinnati Reds pitcher sneaked out of Wrigley during a game and visited, still in uniform, a rooftop from where he waved to his teammates and TV cameras.

That same year, Skybox on Sheffield opened, primarily catering to corporate groups. It was renovated in 2011 and now includes a two-tier outdoor roof deck, indoor clubhouse, fully staffed bars on three levels, an elevator for easy access, and more than 20 plasma TVs. It once had sightlines from the right-field foul pole to home plate, but it no longer has a view of the infield since a video board was installed last year.

In 1998, the city began regulating the rooftops, which were required to get a special license, but the regulations didn’t slow the growth.

In 2002, relations between the businesses and team started to sour with the erection of a green screen above the outfield bleachers that affected the views. It became known as the “spite fence.”

The Cubs sued most rooftop businesses that year, charging they were stealing the team’s product and “unjustly” enriching “themselves to the tune of millions of dollars each year.”

In 2004, the two sides reached a revenue-sharing agreement, after which several rooftops boosted capacity. The venues were required to give 17 percent of their gross revenues to the team in exchange for their spectators getting a view into the stadium. The agreement expires at the end of 2023.

But the relationship between the team and the rooftops worsened after the Ricketts family bought the team in 2009. The Ricketts family offered to buy all rooftop businesses shortly after buying the team, court records show.

Pressure from the Cubs wasn’t the rooftop owners’ only problem.

After the recession, some rooftop owners scrambled to make payments on multimillion-dollar mortgages they took out during the boom years. Corporate customers balked at spending thousands of dollars on an outing to watch the Cubs. Several rooftops started selling tickets on half-price online coupon sites such as Groupon.

In January 2015, Skybox on Sheffield and Lakeview Baseball Club sued the Cubs, concerned about their views being obstructed.
“The Cubs breached their contract with the right-field rooftop owners by obstructing their view with the right-field video board,” Chicago lawyer James Figliulo, who is representing the investor group that bought both rooftops in 2014, said this week. “We believe we’ll be successful on appeal, and the Cubs will ultimately pay damages.”

In the lawsuit, the rooftops recounted a 2012 meeting in which Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts said “2023 can’t come soon enough.” Ricketts and other Cubs executives, the lawsuit alleged, said the rooftop businesses were involved in a “price war” leading to a “race to the bottom” on Cubs’ ticket prices, and the team would block the views unless they agreed to the “price-fixing scheme.”

In September 2015 U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall dismissed all nine counts in the suit. Kendall earlier said, among other things, the businesses had not shown that the Cubs violated the terms of the agreement or that the video board would lead to the businesses closing. By that time, the Ricketts family already had acquired six rooftop businesses.

Wrigley Rooftops now manages 11 rooftop clubs along Waveland and Sheffield — most controlled by the Ricketts family. Some rooftop sellers now help manage Wrigley Rooftops.

Illustrating how the rooftops have become a serious business, one former owner of Skybox on Sheffield in July was convicted of mail fraud and illegal bank structuring for hiding more than $1 million in revenue to avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties owed to the Cubs as well as state and local taxes.

Murphy’s Rooftop is one of the few remaining independents.

Business has “ebbed and flowed based on the Cubs’ fortune,” said Beth Murphy, who owns both the bar and the rooftop businesses. Her husband died in 2003.

Murphy said she doesn’t plan to sell the rooftop.

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