CHICAGO – The crowded rooftop bleachers overlooking Wrigley Field stand as proof that no matter how bad the Chicago Cubs played, the ballpark was simply not big enough to hold everyone who wanted to see them play.
Until now. Between a national recession and a local team that is just plain depressing, the rooftop bleachers — as synonymous with Wrigley as the ivy-covered walls they tower above — are showing signs that there are limits to what fans are willing to do and pay to see a game.
"Last year, the business was weak on our rooftop and this year is not as good as last year," said Beth Murphy, whose late husband's decision decades ago to cart a lawn chair, a cooler of beer and a barbecue onto his roof to watch a game has made him kind of a founding father of rooftop owners. "With the economy, on top of the Cubs performance, (it) has been tough."
Just how tough things have become is as obvious as the empty seats that dot the privately-owned rooftops, something that had been a rarity over the past few years when the number of rooftop businesses climbed by a third to 16 and the capacity of all of them nearly doubled to 3,000.
Owners, who over the years have transformed the informal apartment building rooftops to gleaming mini-stadiums, say their business is off by as much as 20 percent, and they fear the last month of the season, with the team more than 20 games out of first place, will only get worse.
A big reason, owners say, is that corporations willing to shell out $30,000 to host an outing are tougher to find. Some companies, owners say, don't have the money anymore to spend on the kind of outings that were once routine.
Others are reluctant to host gatherings they fear will put them in line for the kind of public outrage that was directed at auto executives who took private jets to Washington to plead with lawmakers for money.
"You hear about these companies and lobbyists going on extravagant trips and things and that creates an environment where corporations, pr-wise, can't spend money on events," said Mark Schlenker, owner of Brixen Ivy, a rooftop business beyond Wrigley's left field wall.
Then there's the fans' reaction to what is happening on the field.
"Everyone is just demoralized," said Rich Zasiebida, partner of Skybox on Sheffield.
Schlenker said it's even worse than that.
"This is the most apathetic the city has been toward the Cubs that I've ever seen, "he said.
It all adds up to a frantic effort to find customers.
"In 2003, 2004, I had people calling me, excited they found me, basically willing to pay anything if I could squeeze them on a rooftop. ... It was almost like they found an exclusive club, like you were a speakeasy in the 20s," said Schlenker. "This year I have people calling me, and calling every other rooftop to see who has the lowest price and will you beat their price."
That has forced rooftops that routinely sold tickets for $150 a game — a price that includes all the beer they can drink and food they can eat — and well over $300 when marquee teams were in town are now advertising tickets for $100, $69 and lower.
"I called around and the best deal I got was $59 and when I called the Lakeview Baseball Club, they told me $45 and if I had (a party of) 10 or more it was $30," said Kevin Vincent.
Max Waisvisz, a partner in three rooftops, shakes his head at a $30 ticket, but said he and other owners are slashing prices.
The rooftop owners won't say exactly how much money they're making — or not making. But there are signs that things are shaky. Just this year, one of the oldest rooftop businesses, Lakeview Baseball Club, slipped into foreclosure. Another one is on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by the Cubs for the $211,000 the team claims the rooftop owes it as part of an agreement to share its revenues.
As for the rest, renovating the rooftops into small stadiums complete with flat-screen TVs, state-of-the-art kitchens that serve lobster ravioli, craft beer along with hot dogs and burgers hasn't been cheap. Court documents reveal that the rooftop business in foreclosure borrowed more than $3 million and, according to the Chicago Tribune, had a monthly mortgage of more than $30,000.
Other owners don't want to say how much their own mortgages are, but Waisvisz pointed to two of his multimillion dollar buildings, saying a $30,000 monthly mortgage is "definitely not unheard of."
The owners also say that they're making less money at a time when it's costing them more to operate. One reason is the corporate gatherings are giving way to crowds of fans who want to see how much they can eat and drink.
"If my beer gets warm I'm not going to choke it down, I'm going to get a cold one," said fan Bruce Kowalski, 48, who was at Skybox on Sheffield.
Word that the rooftops are struggling doesn't bother some area residents, who bristled as they watched the them grow taller and more elaborate.
"They're eyesores and they've destroyed some of our views," said Meg Styck.
From across the street, the Cubs are watching their neighbors closely. The two sides have had a sometimes testy history. The Cubs put up windscreens in 2002 that partially obstructed rooftop views and sued the owners, alleging that selling their views of the games amounted to stealing from the Cubs. In 2004, they reached an agreement that calls for rooftops to hand over 17 percent of their revenues to the team.
"We're assuming its a good relationship with the rooftops," said Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts. "And once the Ricketts family puts together a championship team on the field that the fans deserve, everyone's business picture will improve."
Zasiebida said the Cubs don't even have to go that far.
"I think we're going be OK," he said. "You just need a product on the field you can at least stomach watching."