By Jim Baker
Special to Page 2

CHICAGO -- In the wake of the news that their crosstown rivals had hit game start time gold, the Chicago Cubs were scrambling to retaliate yesterday. According to published reports, the Chicago White Sox have moved the start time of all their night games to 7:11 to coincide with the name of a new sponsor, 7-11 convenience stores. For this, the merchandiser has agreed to pay the 2005 World Champions $500,000. This news took Chicago's National League entry by surprise, but, according to sources close to the team, they have made "great strides" in their attempt to play catch-up. How much can the Cubs expect to gain from their marketing efforts on this end? "We'll definitely get the five and two of the zeros that the White Sox got," said an anonymous source somehow affiliated with the club, "and a third and fourth zero are also a strong possibility."

While the White Sox's deal with 7-11 apparently came together without any major hitches, the Cubs have not been so fortunate in their attempts to line up a single sponsor for a game time tie-in. Mark Zelpath, managing director of Extreme Marketing Realities, a Washington, D.C.-based drunk tank, reports the Cubs were rebuffed in their attempts to land a major corporate sponsor to tie into their start times. "First they went to aircraft manufacturer Boeing to see if they'd buy into 7:37 start times. They weren't interested.

"Then they went to Levi's and promised them 5:01 start times. Nothing doing. They hit up Bacardi for 1:51. Didn't happen," Zelpath said.

Instead, the Cubs began to look locally. What is more, they stopped focusing on a single starting time tie-in. "They went micro instead of macro, to use two words I bust out on my students whenever possible," said Leif Spears, an economics instructor at the University of Illinois-Wrigleyville. "Cubs management stopped looking at the schedule as a single entity to be auctioned and began to view it as 81 separate properties."

Once they switched to that method, things began to happen quickly. They started by approaching local businesses and organizations about single-game sponsorships with game start times customized to fit their names. The response was immediate and positive.

"When the Cubs called me I was in the middle of a complicated weave job and almost didn't take the call," Tess Rodgers, owner and operator of Hair Studio 339, said. "But they were like, 'We'll start a game at 3:39 just for you' and I was like, 'OK by me.'"

Store number 438 of the national fast food chain Grilled Cheese America in Calumet City also jumped at the chance to sponsor a start time. According to manager Mike Czefzic, the sponsorship will offer instant recognition. "On that day in May when the Cubs start at 4:38, people will immediately think, 'Hey, I need a grilled cheese sammich.' And be sure to spell that S-A-M-M-I-C-H. That's our copyright."

What really got the start time sponsorship program moving was when the Cubs stopped thinking in terms of traditional baseball game times. "As you know," Spears said, "baseball games usually start in the early afternoon or between 7 and 7:35 in the evening. When the Cubs broke out of that box, they were able to approach more entities."

Entities like American Legion Post 1006, who agreed to sponsor a game in late June. "We don't know if it's AM or PM right now," Col. David M. Moltke (ret.), Post spokesman, said. "But we do know the first pitch will be thrown at 10:06 because we're paying for that right. I'm thinking morning would be better for us since a lot of the fellows are getting on in years."

Other sponsors include Polka 103, an FM radio station for a game in July; the International Brotherhood of Gandy Dancers Local No. 931 for a contest in early September and Bistro 648, which tried for Opening Day but was beaten to it by Cub Scout Pack 211.

Seth Waters, Bistro 648's head chef and manager, had to settle for a date later in the season. "Yes, I was disappointed," Waters said, "but we got our game. It's against the Pirates, so we got a discount. I don't want to sound bitter about losing out to Cub Scouts. That will make me look bad. I'm already in dutch with the Board of Health and I don't need bad pub. Now I've probably pissed off the Dutch. You can't win."

According to Zelpath, the Cubs went after the sponsors systematically. "They hired a consultant who told them they had 720 possible time tie-ins. That seemed like a lot to me, but I borrowed a friend's computer and figured it out on Excel. It works: 60 different minutes in 12 different hours," he said. "All they have to do is sell 81 of those 720 possible times and they're golden."

So far, team sources have indicated they've got 58 firm commitments and another dozen or so maybes. Only about 20 percent of the potential sponsors they've called have rejected them with profane outbursts.

"This is a remarkable record of success in a short period of time," Spears said. One aspect of the sponsorship program that is sure to cause some questions is the amount of confusion that having 81 different and widely diverse start times is sure to cause. While nobody in Cubs management would comment on this for the record, one highly placed source did have this to say: "Look, this is found money, so if people are inconvenienced, tough darts. Besides, these are Cubs fans. We realized a long time ago they're going to show up no matter what. If can they handle the decades of losing, they can adjust to this."

Jim Baker is a contributor to Page 2 and also writes for Baseball Prospectus. Sound off to Page 2 here.