Brooks Boyer's boyish face looked cautiously hopeful as he sat behind the large desk in his sparsely furnished office on a recent morning. A nearly full box of caffeine-heavy Diet Mountain Dew sat on the floor as both an aid and a warninghis tenure as the man in charge of the White Sox's marketing department could be filled with sleepless nights.
But Boyer seems full of plans and energy, eager to root out any complacency that might have touched members of the marketing staff left over from Rob Gallas' 15-year regime.
Boyer, whose previous job involved helping keep United Center seats full at post-Michael Jordan Bulls games, seems to understand the challenges inherent in trying to convince Chicago-area consumers that the best use of their discretionary dollars is buying tickets to Sox games at U.S. Cellular Field.
The task is all the more difficult because Chicago is a two-team major-league city. Boyer's competition isn't just the norm of concerts, movies, beaches and other summer attractions. He also has to face the Cubs across town.
"We're competing with each other," Boyer acknowledged. "There's a rivalry on the field during those six [Cubs-Sox interleague] games. There's a rivalry off the field every day because we're competing for the fans' attention, for sponsorship dollars, for season-ticket holders, for general walk-up ticket purchasers.
"We're competing for all that. There's no question we're competing for that."
As if to underscore that belief, Boyer's first major endeavor on behalf of the Sox was a television commercial poking fun at the Cubs' exalted status in the marketplace. Some viewed it as counterproductive: Why call attention to your bitter rival? But Boyer considered it a good-natured attempt to remind people that the South Side entry is a viable entity with pride, history and strengths of its own.
Across town, at the Wrigley Field offices of the Cubs, vice president of marketing and broadcasting John McDonough looks at year after year of record numbers. He can afford to remain above the fray.
"We don't market against the White Sox," McDonough said. "We market to enhance the Cubs. The White Sox have their job to do and we have our own job to do. We certainly don't market to the rhythm of what's going on over there."
McDonough's denial is symbolic of the current relationship between the two teams, an unequal balance in which the jaunty North Siders always seems to be just out of reach of the Sox. This despite the Sox's history of performing somewhat better on the field, last season's results notwithstanding.
Extricating a team from that kind of second-fiddle status presents a formidable challenge to Boyer. "I think [the Sox] can get closer to what the Cubs have in terms of attendance and fan interest," said Marc Ganis, president of the Chicago-based sports marketing firm Sportscorp, Ltd. "But it will be a generation or two before they can hope to exceed the Cubs. The Cubs have become an institution; the White Sox are still a baseball team. There's a mystique, a history, which the Cubs have and the White Sox don't.
"There's no marketing slogan that is going to create a feeling of nostalgia and wistfulness for any sports team."
In moving from the United Center to U.S. Cellular Field, Boyer inherits the daunting task of trying to change some less-than-flattering perceptions of the White Sox.
While he can't influence the team's place in the standings, he can alter the way people think about the team and the ballpark. And he plans to.
Backing him up is the two clubs' history. The Cubs' surge toward city domination began in 1984, when they reached the playoffs for the first time in 39 years. They simultaneously were becoming a national attraction thanks to WGN's reach as a cable-TV superstation and Harry Caray's cult-figure status. Wrigley Field became a must-see stop for tourists who had seen the ancient ballyard on TV and heard Caray literally sing its praises.
U.S. Cellular never will be Wrigley Field, but it has its er, charms.
"The thing we have to do is educate our fans to the new amenities of the ballpark, educate them to what our team is all about," Boyer said. "We need to get [the players'] personalities out there. In the short term, we'll change the way our players are introduced and come onto the field. You're going to see probably more entertainment at our games than you've seen in the past.
"What we want to do is create an atmosphere here that's fun to come to every time."
Boyer emphasizes the aggressiveness he wants to accent. Unlike the Cubs, who set major-league records for tickets sold in one- and three-day periods in late February and who are virtually sold out for the season, the White Sox cannot open the gates and simply start counting money.
"That's what a lot of [fans] are waiting forto aggressively seek out people to come to a game," Boyer said. "People enjoy coming to games when there are a lot of other people here. That's really what my goal and my focus is, to get us organized to the point where we are an aggressive sales and marketing force, as opposed to sitting back and letting happen whatever happens. Let's control our own destiny rather than just let destiny happen."
Of course, in the world of sports marketing, changing ingrained ideas of what a team is and what it can be falls to someone who has no control over what matters most: winning.
"You can talk about all these marketing ideas and strategies and what you do to lure people in," the Cubs' McDonough said. "[But] the greatest marketing idea that ever existed, regardless of where you play, is winning."
The surest and easiest way to fill the seats is with results, on the field, on the court, on the ice. Almost every team's attendance and sponsorship deals spike during the good years and drop when the numbers in the victory column do likewise.
But winning isn't always enough. Teams ultimately strive to raise their base attendance number, which approximates the number of fans it can expect to draw in an average to down year. Ganis estimated the White Sox's current base number at 1.8 to 2 million and the Cubs' at 2.4 million.
"In the long term, success comes from transcending wins and losses," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "That's where so many other factors [come in]: the venue, the quality of concessions."
This theory long has been a factor in baseball. Note Chicago maverick owner Bill Veeck's words in his 1962 autobiography "Veeck as in Wreck:" "[Phil] Wrigley compared the Cubs' won-and-lost records with corresponding daily attendance charts and showed me that the two followed a practically identical pattern. His conclusion was inescapable: A team that isn't winning a pennant has to sell something in addition to its won-and-lost record to fill in those low points on the attendance chart."
Thus Veeck instituted a marketing plan that endures to this day: "We sold 'Beautiful Wrigley Field.' We advertised 'Beautiful Wrigley Field.' We sold it so well that when I came back to Chicago in 1959 as president of the White Sox, I found 'Beautiful Wrigley Field' my greatest single obstacle. Because 'Beautiful Wrigley Field' tacitly implied 'that run-down, crummy joint on the South Side.'"
That would be the old Comiskey Park, leveled in 1991. Its successor, now known as U.S. Cellular Field, provides many amenities, but it doesn't make anybody's list of favorite ballparks even if recent renovations have helped a lot.
"What we do is we sell not only the ballpark but the ballpark experience," Boyer said. "We're not Wrigley, we know we're not Wrigley, we know we're not going to be Wrigley. It's great that baseball fans in Chicago have the opportunity to go to two different ballparks that are unique."
The Cell is actually is a pretty good place to watch a game, and for most games there are plenty of good seats available. The White Sox certainly haven't conceded on the venue issue, spending nearly $70 million to improve their park over the past few years. The reconfigured upper deck is designed to address the most persistent criticism of The Cell, and the spruced-up and expanded outfield fan deck just might provide some Wrigley Field-type ambience if fans come out to experience them.
"Their ballpark obviously helps [the Cubs] sell," Boyer conceded. "It's so unique and so desirable that they have to use that to their advantage. But we have some things here at our stadium that we're able to do that are to our advantage. Our technology here is significantly better than what they have at Wrigley. Our suites are better, our club level is nicer."
Every Cubs game is no longer broadcast nationally, but they remain a strong ratings draw locally. Through Thursday the Cubs were averaging a 9.4 rating for their WGN and WCIU telecasts, up percent from last year. The Sox were doing a 4.0 rating,up percent from last year.
There is a much stronger correlation between winning percentage and attendance with the White Sox over the last 20 years than there is with the Cubs, which suggests the Cubs don't necessarily have to win to fill their park. Over those 20 years, not including this season, the Cubs have outdrawn the Sox by more than a half-million fans per year. Yet their cumulative winning percentage is .017 lower than the Sox.
"There's something different that goes on here that doesn't happen anywhere else," the Cubs' McDonough said. "You have people walking to the ballpark. You have the marquee. You see the cobblestone concourse and it gives you the feeling that you're walking into history.
"And you walk up those steps and the ivy is so green and the grass is so green, it just knocks you out. And you see another icon when you look at that hand-operated scoreboard. You see the bleachers and you see the backdrop. You see all of these things that are unique to Wrigley Field."
There's also a lively bar scene that makes the Wrigleyville area surrounding the ballpark a social magnet. Some observers warned that the situation was getting out of hand when a Wrigley patron was shot and killed after a traffic incident outside the ballpark earlier this season. But the shooting appears to have had little effect on the convivialityneighborhood bars are still packed before, during and after Cub games.
It's a different story down by 35th and Shields. As Boyer notes, the ballpark's location between an expressway and a train yard tends to discourage foot traffic. And, with the exception of the venerable Jimbo's, there isn't much available in the way of neighborhood nightspots.
A marketing chief can't be dealt a much better hand than the one McDonough currently holds, with a playoff-caliber team playing in an icon of a ballpark where more than 99 percent of the seats are sold. It makes for a strong collegiate atmosphere, with recent college grads from Wrigleyville and other North Side neighborhoods filling many of those seats.
Boyer would like a slice of that market share but, ever the realist, he's more concerned with suburban fans and families.
Kids abound in the wide, roomy concourses of U.S. Cellular Field, where the open spaces expose a greater truth: Through Thursday, the Sox are drawing just 22,198 at home, good for 21st in baseball.
The Sox hope to improve those numbers with a stronger effort in the Hispanic market. They've hired an advertising agency to target Spanish-speaking consumers, and Boyer cites the team's prominent Hispanic influencemanager Ozzie Guillen, outfielders Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee, infielders Jose Valentin and Juan Uribe, catcher Sandy Alomar Jr.as a bridge to that market.
"I absolutely think [the Sox] need to market to the Hispanic population. It's the largest-growing demographic in the Chicago market," marketing guru Ganis said.
"Here's the problem: Statistics show that demographic does not attend baseball games at the level of other racial or ethnic groups. They may read about it in their newspapers, watch it on TV or listen to it on Spanish-language radio. Somewhere along the line [the Sox] need to convert these fans of the game into ticket-buying people."
Fans' loyalties probably won't be affected by the on-field results of this weekend's three-game Cubs-Sox series at U.S. Cellular Field. They'll play three more the following weekend at Wrigley. Like McDonough, Cubs manager Dusty Baker has attempted to distance himself from the rivalry, insisting the Cubs' games with St. Louis and Houston are more important because they have a greater bearing on the division race.
But it's a rivalry nonetheless.
"Anybody would be foolish to say it doesn't mean anything because it does," Boyer said. "It means a lot to our fans. It means a lot to their fans. It means a lot to our front office. It means a lot to their front office. If anyone tells you different, they're not telling the truth."