Chicago politicians get cheap tickets for Cubs playoff games
Granting favors to politicians is the cost of doing business for sports team owners in Chicago.
Tickets to see the Chicago Cubs potentially end their 108-year championship drought this October are pricey, with home World Series tickets on StubHub ranging anywhere from about $2,000 for standing room only, to $1 million to sit next to the Cubs bullpen.
It will be nearly impossible to find a ticket much cheaper – unless you’re an alderman or state lawmaker.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported Oct. 3 that for the second consecutive year, all 50 aldermen and state lawmakers representing Chicago districts have been offered the right to purchase two terrace reserved or upper deck tickets at face value for each of the Cubs home playoff games, as well as for the World Series.
A Cubs spokesman told the Sun-Times the offer was a “courtesy.” But really, it’s just the cost of doing business in Chicago.
The Cubs organization – which receives no taxpayer money and is putting upwards of $375 million in private money toward Wrigley Field renovations – extended the same offer to these politicians during the 2015 postseason, and during the team’s 2003, 2007 and 2008 playoff runs. This year, the team added the caveat that the tickets are not for resale. Many aldermen have already confirmed they will take the Cubs up on the offer, including Alderman Tom Tunney, 44th Ward, who has been in a longstanding feud with the organization over its proposed renovations to Wrigley Field.
Tunney has tried to block efforts by the Ricketts, who own the Cubs, to renovate the ballpark with their own money, notably through the addition of two electronic scoreboards at the start of the 2015 season, as well as an outdoor patio adjacent to the ballpark, for which Tunney sought to deny a liquor license. The Chicago Board of Ethics ruled that – because of City Council’s involvement with renovation plans – any aldermen who accept the tickets and attend the games will have to accompany their guests and be announced to the crowd, likely to boos, or risk violating the city’s ethics ordinance.
While politicians might not be violating the ethics ordinance, then, the ticket offer still reveals what all Chicago business owners face: Play ball with city politicians, or they will make life difficult for you.
The Cubs ownership is trying to privately fund major projects for the betterment of the surrounding neighborhood and the enjoyment of the team’s fans – and these efforts are met with political opposition. The alternative, which Chicago politicians have historically welcomed, is a series of backroom deals with city and state officials.
Chicago sports owners have often picked that option in the past.
In the early 2000s, when the Chicago Bears were seeking taxpayer funding for renovations of Soldier Field, then-Chairman Edward McCaskey made a political donation to Mayor Richard M. Daley, despite the late McCaskey’s history of donating to Republicans.
The Bears got the taxpayer funding, which they are still receiving to this day, and the renovation turned into a “huge public-works project with plenty of hefty contracts for friends and political allies of City Hall and Springfield,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, or ISFA, oversaw those renovations, and also owns and operates the Chicago White Sox’s U.S. Cellular Field, which, starting Nov. 1 will be renamed Guaranteed Rate Field. The White Sox won’t see any of the new money from the naming deal, though – of the $25.1 million in the deal, the team will receive $20.4 million that was left from the deal U.S. Cellular opted out of. The new $4.7 million will go to the ISFA, or in other words, the state.
The ISFA was created in 1987 to provide taxpayer funding for the construction and renovation of stadiums for professional sports teams, including the new White Sox stadium – a fiasco that started when White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who also owns the Chicago Bulls, threatened to move the team to Florida.
The ISFA is usually stacked with the politically connected, such as former state Senate President Emil Jones, who served as ISFA chairman from 2011-2015. But not every ISFA board member has accepted its cronyism. Former ISFA Chairwoman Perri Irmer, who served from 2004-2011, claimed in a lawsuit the ISFA exists as “nothing more than a cash cow puppet for Reinsdorf,” not to serve its intended purpose of economic development through sports stadiums.
Since the ISFA was created, Reinsdorf has made large donations to powerful politicians in the city and the state, including Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and both former Gov. Pat Quinn and Gov. Bruce Rauner.
If Irmer’s claims are true, Reinsdorf is doing everything he can to protect those subsidies that benefit the sports teams he owns.
And even when politicians aren’t doling out taxpayer funding for billionaires’ stadiums or benefitting from ticket favors, they’re still using their standing to gain additional access in the sports world.
Madigan used nearly $1 million from his campaign funds to buy tickets to sporting events from 2011-2015. That bill included more than $1,200 annually to the University of Notre Dame, more than $450,000 for Cubs tickets, more than $260,000 for White Sox tickets and more than $200,000 for Bulls tickets. Another $287,000 was listed as “gifts.”
Those organizations are probably thankful for Madigan’s hefty tabs, regardless of where the money came from. And they may well remember that when it’s time to write campaign checks.
The close-knit relationship between politicians and billionaire sports owners isn’t fair for Illinoisans – either as taxpayers or as sports fans. But barring some massive change in the city and state’s political culture, Chicago politicians will have ample opportunity to see the Cubs make history this October, and will likely enjoy other privileges in the Chicago sports world not afforded to the public.
Meanwhile, most Chicagoans will watch the games from home, stuck with tax bills for billionaires’ stadiums and backroom deals.