Cubs call Baltimore to green their ivy

The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore company with attitude is slapping its name on one of Chicago's most sacred landmarks.

In a few weeks, Wrigley Field will become the latest stadium to carry the Under Armour apparel logo on its outfield wall. Given that the ivy-covered expanse hasn't featured advertising since the first vines were planted in 1937, some Cubs fans are a bit upset.

"It's not going over real well at all," former Cubs public relations director Bob Ibach said. "There have been a lot of complaints about it because that ivy's kind of sacred."

But team and Under Armour officials say the move is a beacon of progress for a franchise steeped in the tradition of losing.

The Cubs want more revenue so they can pay for better players. "Their focus is on winning right away, and that appealed to us," said Steve Battista, Under Armour's vice president of brand.

Battista said the team approached him about putting logos on doors in the outfield wall about two years ago. "It's never been done before," he said, "and that is obviously a big part of our marketing approach."

The 7-by-12-foot white logos will appear on green doors in left and right field through at least 2008.

Neither the Cubs nor Under Armour disclosed terms of the deal, though the team has said the cash infusion will help it keep up with escalating player salaries. The Cubs spent more than any other club this winter, signing new players such as Alfonso Soriano and Ted Lilly and retaining slugger Aramis Ramirez.

In a bit of synergy, Soriano agreed to wear Under Armour's wristbands and batting gloves last week.

When asked why the Cubs chose Under Armour, Cubs marketing director Jay Blunk said: "The culture here is now about athletic achievement at the highest level, and they are a symbol of the change we're trying to make."

Under Armour advertises at Camden Yards and on one of baseball's other treasured antiques, the Green Monster at Boston's Fenway Park.

The splashy Wrigley announcement was yet another indication of how far the company has come since former University of Maryland football player Kevin Plank founded it in1996. Plank believed his microfiber garb would offer an alternative for athletes tired of sweating through their cotton undershirts.

He was right, and the company made its national name with edgy, music video-style commercials built around the slogan "Protect This House." Under Armour went public in 2005. Auburn and Texas Tech have since joined Maryland as major sports programs that wear its gear. The company's logo seems to pop up on more pros every year.

"Under Armour has come from nowhere to being one of the most recognized names in sports-specialty apparel in a relatively short time," Chicago-based sports marketing consultant Marc Ganis said. "They've carved out this niche as sort of the bad boys, and it's worked for them."

But it would be disingenuous for even the purest of baseball lovers to claim that stadium advertising isn't intertwined with the game's history. The ivy-covered brick wall at Wrigley had remained an exception to the rule. Bill Veeck started the vines growing on that classic structure 70 years ago and it has hardly changed since.

Blunk said most fans he has spoken with understand the reason for the ads.

"Once they understand that we can add these revenue streams tastefully, I think they're willing to trade a little bit of that for a winner," he said, noting that the Cubs are in a division full of new ballparks and need creative ways to compete financially. "We play in this beautiful place out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but it costs millions of dollars to maintain."

Some Cubs fans reacted angrily to the announcement last week, but the furor has died down.

"They complain about it for a day and then it's over," said Mike North, who hosts a popular morning show for a Chicago sports radio station. "The Cubs don't have to take a vote. They know they'll be drawing 40,000 every time to see a fourth-place club, anyway."

A poll at the fan web site Bleed Cubbie Blue found that 50 percent of 455 respondents hated the idea of the signs compared to only 10 percent who liked it. The rest expressed indifference.

"Some people think it's a shrine," North said of Wrigley. "But then I have to explain to them that all the old shrines - Yankee Stadium, Ebbetts Field and on and on - had advertising on the walls back in the day."

Ganis thinks Under Armour made a good deal.

"They not only get the value of the advertising, but they get the exposure from the publicity surrounding this sort of unprecedented happening," he said.

In the past 25 years, the Cubs have added lights, more bleacher seats and advertising behind home plate. Each change prompted concern over lost ambience. Each was accepted relatively quickly.

"They've been very savvy in terms of maintaining the Norman Rockwell feel of Wrigley Field," Battista said.

A winning team would help fans accept the new signs, Ibach said. "Then, fans could justify it as sort of the cost of doing business," he said.

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