From the Pages of Vine Line: Planning the Party of the Century

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(Photo by David Durochik)

Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday season is in the books. To celebrate the milestone, the Cubs embarked on an unprecedented and ambitious plan for a yearlong celebration. Now that it’s over, we take a look back at how it all came together. The following can be found in the December issue of Vine Line.

Under the best of circumstances, party planning can be stressful. There’s deciding on the menu, stocking the bar, planning activities to ensure revelers have a good time, figuring out what to wear, and compiling an interesting and appropriate guest list.

Now imagine your party swelled to include some 2.6 million people and lasted for 81 days. Daunting doesn’t even begin to describe it.

When the Cubs set out to throw fans the Party of the Century during the 2014 season to celebrate Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday, it was a nearly unprecedented task. The only other franchise that had attempted anything near this scale was the Boston Red Sox, who celebrated Fenway Park’s centennial with an amazing one-day blowout on April 20, 2012.

But, unlike their Boston counterparts, the Cubs decided to make their celebration last all season long, thereby embarking on one of the most ambitious and lengthy promotional campaigns ever attempted in professional sports.

Throughout the year, the Cubs tied in most of their activities during 10 different decade-themed homestands to the Wrigley Field 100 theme. They brought in special guests who had a connection with the decade being celebrated, including Pat Brickhouse, the widow of late, great broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, and Lennie Merullo, the last living link to the Cubs’ most recent World Series team in 1945; they wore 10 different throwback uniforms, more than any other team had ever attempted; they created a set of 10 era-specific bobbleheads, from Babe Ruth’s called shot to a Rick Sutcliffe first night game edition with working lights; they offered 10 different historic toys to children on Sundays, like a Cubs Etch A Sketch and a Gracie the Swan Beanie Baby; and they served up historic food and drink options, from a classic Old Fashioned to the famous Vienna Beef Decade Dogs.

This, coupled with an improved team, added up to an increase in attendance over the previous season and some 2.25 billion media impressions—double what the Cubs were expecting—about the Wrigley Field 100 celebration on TV and radio, in print and online, including in nonsporting outlets like The New York Times, The Today Show and Forbes magazine.

So how did it all come together?

* * * *

Though the organization had its collective eye on the centennial for years, the real planning kicked off with an email sent in December 2012, a full 16 months before the key season was set to kick off on April 4, 2014. Cubs Senior Director of Marketing Alison Miller, who had just joined the Cubs from General Mills in July 2012, gathered her team for a kickoff meeting and brainstorming session about Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary. To get everyone in the mood, there were cupcakes, hats and party favors.

“It was an exciting time because you’re sitting around a table throwing ideas around, and you realize the opportunities are almost endless,” said John Morrison, manager of brand activation. “The difficulty was figuring out, oh, there are so many opportunities and so many wonderful things we can do that the players, front office, fans, single-game ticket purchasers and season ticket holders would all love. Let’s really dial this thing in on what are going to be the coolest, most impactful things.”

To generate ideas for the celebration, the Cubs looked for inspiration off the field. Because there were really no other sports teams that had attempted anything like this, the Cubs looked at companies that were adept at celebrating key milestones—first and foremost, Disney.

The Mouse House has always had a keen eye for integrating its promotions throughout the company.

“It’s one thing to have the anniversary, but it’s all in how you integrate it, not only in your advertising, but in your own organization,” Miller said. “Then you’re in meetings, and people are saying, ‘Well, what if we tied it into the 100th, or how can we make this tie into the campaign?’ That’s what I want as a marketing person. If anybody’s thinking of an idea, they’re bringing it back to the campaign.

“Then, as the consumer, you’re seeing a very holistic look from us. You’re seeing anything from the Cubs this year was all tied to Wrigley Field turning 100. Everything from the boxes of tickets that you got, to when you show up at the ballpark, to the giveaways that we did, to the uniforms that we’re wearing, to the food that we served—everything is really synced into one campaign.”

Early on, the brain trust decided the celebration should focus on Wrigley Field, not just the Cubs. That opened up a world of possibilities for the marketing team. Though the Cubs have now played at the ballpark for 98 years, they were not the original tenants. That honor belongs to the Chi-Feds of the old Federal League. And Wrigley has hosted much more than just baseball over the years, including Bears football, boxing, ski jumping, hockey, soccer and concert events.

Once the Cubs settled on the yearlong decades concept, they enlisted Chicago advertising agency Schafer Condon Carter to help them flesh out how they would put the idea into action. The agency came up with the 10 Decades/10 Homestands theme and the Party of the Century tag, and the Cubs were off and running.

The next goal was to get everybody in the organization on board. To make a promotion of this magnitude work, the marketing team needed buy-in from all levels of the organization. This necessitated a number of meetings to get everyone pulling in the same direction, but it also included little things like making sure every team employee received Cubs merchandise with the Wrigley Field 100 logo to wear throughout the season.

“I remember at one of the first meetings, [business president Crane Kenney] was like, ‘Everyone has to get behind the 100th. This is our big initiative,’” Miller said. “That set the tone, but orchestrating that is a lot.

Making sure everyone’s synced up. … That was a little bit more of a challenge, but that’s personally rewarding as well when it all comes together. I think we look back, and it’s like, holy cow, this was a lot that we did. But we pulled it off.”

* * * *

One of the first fan-facing initiatives of the 100th birthday celebration was the Wrigley Field Turns 100 Logo Contest, which allowed people to submit logo designs to be featured on all Cubs promotional items, in the ballpark and on team uniforms throughout the 2014 season. The Cubs received more than 1,200 submissions in February 2013, and fans voted on the designs through April 23, 2013.

The reason this was done so early is because the Cubs needed the lead-time to produce the Wrigley Field 100 merchandise, complete with logo. This included team uniforms, which had to be submitted to the league and manufacturer Majestic Athletic early in the 2013 season. The now-ubiquitous winning logo, designed by Brandon Ort of New Bremen, Ohio, was unveiled in August, but by then, the merchandising machine was already in full swing.

The 10 decade-specific throwback uniforms, which made their debut with 1914 Chi-Feds attire at the 100th birthday game, turned out to be one of the more popular promotions the team ran. Following April 23, the Cubs and their visitors each wore historic uniforms on the first home Sunday of each decade celebration.

Throwbacks have been popular throughout the game in recent years, but, according to Majestic, no team had ever attempted something as ambitious as creating 10 uniforms to be worn by both the home team and the visitors.

“[Majestic] kind of looked at us like, ahh, do you know what you’re getting into?” said Lyndsey Wittemann, coordinator of Authentics and licensing, who was in charge of the season’s retro looks.

The goal was to find uniforms that harkened back to significant events at Wrigley Field during each decade of the ballpark’s history. The marketing team put together a committee, which included Cubs board member Todd Ricketts, to help decide which uniforms to use. Wittemann had to coordinate with Major League Baseball, Majestic and the visiting teams to make sure everyone was on board and the uniforms were as historically accurate as possible.

“We obviously looked into the top moments at Wrigley Field to kind of figure out which one from each decade we wanted to celebrate,” she said. “From there, we would go and try to find some historical images of each uniform, and make sure we had one of every angle and of every component. Then we sent over the images and the years we wanted to do to Majestic. They did their own background research on top of ours and compiled everything all into one uniform and sent a sample out to us.”

This was also one of the more interesting promotions because it actually impacted the players, who found new, historic uniforms hanging in their lockers 10 times in 2014.

“The players absolutely loved the uniforms,” Wittemann said. “A lot of the players actually wanted them for themselves. Many players were like, ‘Oh, this is my favorite. I’m keeping this one.’”

By this point, the marketing team was also cranking out ideas and designs for the 10 bobblehead and toy giveaways. Before producing the bobbleheads, the Cubs needed to work with either the individuals or the estates representing the individuals for each idea to get likeness clearances. For the retro toy series, they had to work with the different toy manufacturers. But all parties quickly realized what a unique opportunity it was to feature themselves, their family member or their product at the Wrigley Field 100 celebration.

“This was really an opportunity for us to showcase all the unbelievable events and historic events and milestones that have taken place at Wrigley Field,” Morrison said. “There was an opportunity here to showcase things we’ve never before had such an ideal opportunity to showcase—and probably won’t in the near future.”

The real trick, according to the marketing team, was settling on just 10 concepts for each type of giveaway.

“To take 100 years of history and only represent 10 moments or figures is a very difficult thing to do,” Morrison said. “There were concerts at Wrigley Field. There have been ski jumps, boxing matches, basketball games, soccer matches. They’re all so unique and neat, and a lot of fans don’t even know these ever existed. So, yeah, there was tons of discussion. Do we do this boxing match, or do we do the Harlem Globetrotters, or do we do the Chicago Sting? We could have done a 50-bobblehead set. No question.

“You’d be surprised, with all the big issues that come across people’s desks when working for a professional sports team, how much discussion about which 10 moments we should celebrate [there was]. How those can quickly get prioritized to the top of the list. It was comical.”

Once the season drew near, it was time to start scheduling visits from the people who made the Wrigley Field 100 festivities so special. Every year, the Cubs bring in guests to throw out the first pitch and sing the seventh-inning stretch at home games. For 2014, they decided each visitor should tie in to the promotion or decade if possible. They still went for A-list celebrities like Chris Pratt and Charles Barkley when the opportunity arose, but they also tried to bring in former Cubs players from each decade or people who had a special connection to the era.

Over the course of the season, the Cubs welcomed guests like Joe Tinker’s family members; Sue Quigg, the grandniece of former Cubs owner Charles Weeghman; Merullo; and former Bears players Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. Quigg, who passed away during the 2014 season, was on hand for the birthday game, where she tossed a 100-year-old ball her grandmother once threw at a Federals game.

“When you get someone who hasn’t been back here in 30, 40 years, and they step onto the field for that first time, it’s like they’re going back in time,” said Jim Oboikowitch, manager of game and event production. “When [the media] talks to them, it’s just exciting for them, and they’re back in that same spot they were in 30, 40, 50 years ago.”

* * * *

The crown jewel of the Wrigley Field 100 celebration was obviously the 100th birthday blowout on April 23. That was the day the marketing team and the entire Cubs organization breathed a collective sigh of relief that this was actually happening—that they had pulled it off—after more than a year of planning.

Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say they breathed that sigh of relief on April 24. On the previous day, much of the Cubs team, including Manager of Broadcast Relations Joe Rios, had been up for more than 24 hours helping coordinate the various photo shoots, newscasts and media requests from outlets around the world. But, ultimately, the day was still all about the fans.

“I think when you really had that ‘ah ha!’ moment that this is a special day was before the pregame festivities even started, when lines started to form around Wrigley Field,” Morrison said. “They were wrapping from under the marquee north down Clark. The lines at Gate K were wrapping east down Waveland, and the fans were lined up north along Sheffield hours before first pitch.

“At that moment, I understood, wow, this is important to all these people. It’s not that the newscasters are here, and these historic figures are here. These are the people of Chicago. These are the people that have come to Wrigley Field over the past 100 years, taking their moment to celebrate and take this all in.”

To make the day worthy of the venue, the team brought in former athletes or their relatives, team representatives and dignitaries who helped shape Wrigley Field; actors and grounds crew members dressed in period costumes; the first 30,000 fans went home with replica 1914 Chi-Feds jerseys; a biplane flyover punctuated the pregame festivities; the Cubs released balloons from behind the left-field wall; the crowd serenaded Wrigley Field with “Happy Birthday” after the fifth inning; and everyone went home with a cupcake thanks to Jewel-Osco.

Feedback from fans and the media was universally positive, and the marketing team was able to finally enjoy the moment later that night at the Cubs Charities Bricks and Ivy Ball at the Field Museum. To a person, the only thing the group said they regret is that the Cubs couldn’t bring home a victory to cap the afternoon. The Cubs (dressed as the Federal League’s Chi-Feds) dropped the game 7-5 to the Arizona Diamondbacks (dressed as the Kansas City Packers).

“The 23rd will always stand out because we’re not going to see the 200th birthday,” Oboikowitch said. “You and I are only here for one of these.”

While it’s nearly impossible to explain all the work that went into—and all the people who played a part in—pulling off the Party of the Century at Wrigley Field, it was definitely a labor of love for everyone in the Cubs organization.

“It was certainly daunting to a certain degree,” Morrison said. “But any sense of being overwhelmed is quickly squashed when you step back and realize, as a lifelong Cub fan, I am in a position to evaluate what are all the figures and moments that make up Wrigley Field, and how can we represent those the best to showcase them to people just like me, who grew up fans of the team and of the ballpark.”

—Gary Cohen

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