At Wrigley, it's Wally's world

CHICAGO --If the Chicago Cubs, the ones who play the game, not market it, had Wally Hayward's confidence, the team would be in first place and planning for October.

If the critics had his vision, empty seats and bad baseball would simply be seen as an outstanding opportunity, and giant noodles and meaningless sponsored trophies would just be ways to connect and enhance the fan experience.

Hayward, the Cubs' Executive Vice President/Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, was sunny and optimistic about the team's present and future success, on and off the field, in an hour-long conversation with ESPN Chicago.

Sitting in his office before Wednesday's 2-1 win over the San Francisco Giants, Hayward wasn't thinking about fire sales as he fended off doom and gloom questions.

"We've got a great team of personalities, young kids and veterans," he said. "And nobody's running away with the division. So if we get hot, a lot of things can happen. There are a lot of games yet to be played."

So, a smart aleck said later in the conversation, when do playoff tickets go on sale?

"For us?" he said. "Let's hope that we can deal with that situation, as well as planning a World Series parade. There are a lot of games left, my friend. And people are like, 'How can you be so optimistic?' San Francisco last year, they were here for our [next-to-last] homestand [in 2010], and they almost didn't get in, right? Then they ran the table. The key is you got to get in. It's not like anyone's running away with the division."

Hayward, a longtime Chicago sports marketing guru now in his second year working under team president Crane Kenney, can't affect the product on the field, but he keeps himself busy signing and servicing corporate partners, while leading a team of dedicated, fledgling John McDonoughs (including the Blackhawks president's own son Ryan) who are trying to sell a fantasy and a reality that don't always follow logical paths.

For instance, while the team itself sits languidly in fifth place in the NL Central, Hayward said business is better than ever, despite what you might hear.

"Obviously we're all disappointed with where we are in the standings, because winning fixes a lot of things," he said. "But from a business perspective, we had a great year last year and we're going to have another great year this year. We're on track for 3 million fans through our park for the eighth consecutive season. Our suites, corporate events and corporate partnerships are up. There's still a lot of excitement going on, but ultimately, we're judged on winning games, and we're all committed to making that a priority."

After a sluggish start to the season attendance-wise, which Hayward blames mostly on bad weather, the Cubs were drawing more than 39,000 per game in the month of June, thanks in part of a three-game series against the New York Yankees, going into the June 30 game against San Francisco. The Cubs drew 37,221 to a Wednesday night game against the Giants. That's an enviable draw in a sport where the average crowd was around 29,000, and in a city where the White Sox are struggling to get 25,000 in their park.

But the Cubs are judged differently, which makes for all the negative coverage. After the final game of June, the Cubs' average fell to 36,220, down 2,253 fans per game from this point last season. That number, extrapolated over the rest of the season, would put the Cubs just under 3 million fans, but Hayward said the team's books show it will break 3 million.

The much-ballyhooed dip in Cubs attendance, Hayward pointed out, can partially be attributed to a run of bad weather in the spring. According to research the team did, the average temperature for its 14 April home games was 47 degrees, and 16 of the 30 home games the first two months of the season had temperatures in the 30s and 40s.

"Looking from where summer really started in Chicago, in early June, we've had nine consecutive crowds of 40,000 each game," Hayward said.

That's not quite true, according to official attendance figures, but he's close.

The Cubs had five straight games of 40,000-plus, the Brewers game on June 16, followed by the three-game series against the Yankees (the best three-game series attendance in team history, for obvious reasons), and the makeup game against the Rockies on Monday, June 27, which was sold as a Sunday game before it was canceled.

Hayward brought up that the Cubs had standing room only tickets available for Cubs-Sox series, but according to searches on the team's website Thursday morning, you could still get club box infield and outfield seats, or $85 bleacher seats, among others, for the series opener Friday.

For Games 2 and 3, there was "limited inventory" available, but doing "best available" searches, lower box seats were available, as were some bleacher seats. For Saturday's game, you could get the maximum of eight "reserved" bleacher seats (that order would run you $939.28) and for Sunday you could get $85 singles in the bleachers.

As far as high ticket prices keeping fans away, Hayward said the team will evaluate its pricing structure again in the offseason. The team didn't raise prices, on average, but it did add a new higher-end "marquee" pricing tier and separated bleacher tickets into its pricing structure.

With higher prices, the fans trying to make money back on their season tickets via the secondary market are taking a bath once again, but that's not really the Cubs' concern, is it?

Well, except for the team-owned Wrigley Field Premium Ticket Services, that is.

While the team stumbles around like a drunk fan trying to get into Murphy's Bleachers, Hayward's people are thinking outside the park, quite literally. They created the "Wrigleyville Block Party" on the team's property on Clark Street. It opened during the Yankees series and returns this weekend when the White Sox come north, and once more against the Cardinals in late August.

Hayward said the biggest significant upgrade from the last event will be a "jumbotron truck" that will show the games at the fenced-in party.

While the Cubs initially tried to shut down Sheffield Avenue to create an atmosphere like Yawkey Way outside Fenway Park, they were denied by the ward and its business owners.

Hayward now says he likes this new idea better and that "we'd love to do more of it."

"I think ours was better than Yawkey Way," he said. "It works for Fenway and Boston, but Wrigley is different. Wrigley is in a neighborhood, in a community. We have people who live across the street."

As far as redoing Wrigley Field, Hayward said the team is still putting together a "master plan," and stressed the need to make the right adjustments to the landmark, regardless of who is footing the bill.

"You look at what happened to some of our other facilities here in Chicago, we had Chicago Stadium, we had Comiskey Park, we had old Soldier Field," he said. "We had some iconic venues and now we have some things that maybe weren't done 100 percent the best it could have been. Everyone today that's trying to build a ballpark, guess what they're trying to build? Wrigley. They're trying to build Wrigley Field and guess what, no one can do it. We have Wrigley Field, all we have to do is preserve it and enhance the player and fan experience."

Under Hayward's leadership, the Cubs have made national news for their sponsorships. From the Kraft Noodle to the Toyota sign to the BP Cup, he said, "Anything we do here creates a huge national story." Of course, the news isn't always positive, but the hoopla does create a buzz for the sponsors, he said.

"Because of the process, and the way the city works, and the media, you guys actually help us and create more exposure and excitement around the things we do," he said. "We appreciate it, so thank you."

Hayward defended the idea of a sponsored "trophy" between franchises that have won one World Series in the last hundred or so years, and the tie-in with BP.

"From a marketing standpoint, we don't have the Jumbotron, we don't have 67 big giant billboards on our walls," he said. "We're not going to put them over the ivy. We got the rooftops. We've got this beautiful ballpark and we need to find other ways to creatively generate incremental revenue for the club. And the BP Crosstown Cup is a great way to do it, where it's not putting up more signs in a ballpark, but it's really engaging baseball fans in the Chicago market in a fun and exciting way around our six-game series with the White Sox."

While the Cubs seem destined to miss the playoffs for the third straight season, Hayward sees a bright future.

"I will tell you, the opportunity for us, when we win, this will be the biggest thing that ever happens in sports," he said.

That is one thing I can agree with. Let's hope there will be carbon-based humanoids around to see it.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.