Chicago's Official Scalpers

As you sit in the majors' most expensive seats, take comfort in knowing that things could be worse. As pricey as Fenway tickets have become, at least the Sox haven't adopted the Chicago Cubs' latest tactic: withholding thousands of tickets from the public so the club can scalp its own tickets.

The Tribune Company also owns Wrigley Field. This month the New York Yankees play there for the first time since Lou Gehrig was their first baseman. Early this season, an outfit called "Wrigley Field Premium Ticket Services" was offering front-row field box tickets for the Yankees games, face value $45, for a mere $1,500. Bleacher seats, $30 from the box office, cost $155 from WFPTS.

WFPTS is located one block from Wrigley Field. Its offices are on land owned by the Tribune Company. Its President, Mark McGuire, is also a Vice President of the Cubs. Its books are handled by the Cubs' accounting department. Its only business is reselling Cubs tickets for more than their face value. WFPTS sells thousands of tickets which have never been offered for sale to the general public -- and if it can't sell all of its allotment, the Cubs will take them back. Yet a WFPTS spokesman insists, "We're not related to the Cubs ticket office."

Of course not.

The relationship between WFPTS and the Cubs will soon be tested in court. Illinois law requires the Cubs to sell their tickets at their stated face value. The Tribune Company thinks it can avoid this law by establishing WFPTS as a separate corporation, selling many of the club's most desirable tickets to this corporation at face value, then letting WFPTS resell them at scalpers' prices. all without ever offering these tickets to the general public. Several angry ticketholders disagree.

In response to their lawsuit, McGuire submitted an affidavit declaring that the tickets the Cubs sent to WFPTS would not have otherwise been available to the public. No one was persuaded. According to McGuire, some of these seats came from a pool of tickets MLB requires be held back for VIP giveaways. MLB denies that any such holdback rule exists. McGuire said that others came from the pool set aside for guests of the players and umpires. But since player guests and VIPs don't have to reserve their tickets in advance, the Cubs can't possibly sell tickets from this pool -- for the very games VIPs are most likely to attend! -- months before the game.

(All of the information above became public as the result of an extensive investigation by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch. Except for a single column, the Chicago Tribune has ignored the story.)

In reality, most or all of the tickets sold by WFPTS would otherwise have been sold at face value by the Cubs ticket office. Whether or not this practice is legal (a trial is scheduled for mid-August), it's a contemptible abuse of the club's best customers. Season ticketholders who for years had been given first shot at extra single-game seats were told that none were available for the most desirable series, the games against the Yankees, White Sox and Cardinals. Loyal fans who stood in line for hours, during a freezing Chicago winter, to buy tickets for these games as soon as they went on sale went home empty-handed.

Wrigley Field and Fenway Park have a lot in common. Both are ancient, small parks filled to capacity each summer. If the Cubs are allowed to get away with this scam, there's nothing to stop the Red Sox from following suit. Instead of raising the price of their tickets, the Sox could simply make them impossible to buy except through the team's own "unaffiliated" scalper.

This Cubs' ticket scalping scheme is just the latest way the Tribune Company has hidden revenues that should be shared with other clubs. The Cubs have long been underpaid for their radio and TV rights, which are "sold" to Tribune Company's WGN radio and TV. For example, in 2001 the Cubs claimed to have earned $6.5 million less than the crosstown White Sox from local media, even though Cubs games are much higher rated.

Fans don't really care about that. Owners who hide media or advertising money are only hurting one another, and keeping more money that they can spend on their team. But the Cubs have crossed the line from cheating their fellow owners to cheating their most loyal fans -- and unless MLB does something about these schemes, they will become more and more common.

If MLB is serious about reducing the financial disparity between clubs, it can't simply ask clubs to share a larger percentage of their revenues. It needs to ensure that all baseball revenues find their way into the revenue-sharing pool. That means hiring independent auditors and valuation experts -- and it means banning ticket-scalping schemes and all other ways a club could improve its bottom line by cheating the paying customers.

Copyright © 2003 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the June 2003 issue of Boston Baseball.

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