Bad hops

It’s not a curse that has doomed the Cubs for more than a century. A Chicago economist blames it on the beer.

By Jason Kelly


All those people who think Wrigley Field is more of a bar than a ballpark might be onto something. A Chicago economist attempting to explain 102 years of Cubs futility identified a staple of bleacher appeal as a key culprit: cheap beer.

In his recent book Scorecasting, Tobias J. Moskowitz, the Fama Family professor of finance at Chicago Booth, charts Wrigley Field’s highs (ticket prices) and lows (number of wins). He and coauthor L. Jon Wertheim write that neither factor diminishes attendance—in contrast to most other Major League Baseball teams—but that increased beer prices do.

From 1984 to 2009, “attendance was more than four times more sensitive to beer prices than to winning or losing.” That sensitivity is evident at the concession stand. A beer at Wrigley Field, Scorecasting reports, costs just $5, cheaper than everywhere except at Arizona Diamondbacks and Pittsburgh Pirates games.

Tickets to Cubs games, on the other hand, have followed a different trajectory. Since 1990, prices have increased 67 percent (the league average is 44.7 percent). Only the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox command more.

Yet people have continued to pay Wrigley Field’s escalating cover charge, filling the stadium to 99 percent capacity. Across town at US Cellular Field, ticket prices and attendance rise and fall based on White Sox wins and losses, but the same beer will run you a buck-fifty more than at Wrigley.

Current Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, AB’88, MBA’93, who bought the team in 2009, has made capital improvements to the ballpark, enhanced the players’ nutritional regimen, and invested in a stronger scouting network. “But the fact that this philosophy is such a marked departure from that of earlier ownerships,” the authors write, “goes a long way toward explaining the previous century of futility.”

Futility that has been blamed on supernatural forces from a jilted billy goat to Steve Bartman’s outstretched hand. Not superstitious types, Moskowitz and Wertheim argue instead that Wrigley Field’s unusual economics skew the franchise’s incentives. If ticket revenue flows regardless of the team’s performance, the value of winning—and the investment it requires—decreases.

You might even say it’s a curse.

Photo courtesy Wally Gobetz, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

April 1, 2011