On September 22—just as the Chicago Cubs’ National League Central Division Championship regular season was winding down—news broke detailing a lawsuit that the Cubs and Major League Baseball’s Licensing arm were bringing against as many as thirty-seven unauthorized merchandise vendors. Many news outlets reported on this story the next day, September 23. They include, but are not limited to, ESPN’s Darren Rovell, Forbes’ Darren Heitner, DNAinfo Chicago’s Ariel Cheung, and the Chicago Tribune’s Lauren Zumbach. Each linked article provides a wealth of information about the nitty-gritty of the case, if you are interested in finding out more.

The issue in question revolves around trademark infringement and the sale of unlicensed merchandise. The Cubs and Major League Baseball request that vendors are barred from selling their goods in and around Wrigleyville as well as online through a temporary restraining order. If this passes, the partnered organizations aim to lock down a permanent injunction that would prevent all vendors from distributing their merchandise going forward.

Seven of these vendors are named, and up to thirty more are mentioned, but not identified in the case. The plaintiffs state, “Defendants are a group of vendors who are deliberately free riding on the success of the Cubs and trading—without a license or permission—on the substantial goodwill associated with the Cubs’ trademarks and trade dress…” Street vendors and online retailers have been selling unlicensed merchandise for many years, but the Cubs’ playoff run, as well as the marketability of many of its players, present an opportunity for the club—as well as Major League Baseball—to make a lot of money in the coming weeks. The court order also demands that vendors hand over any merchandise deemed to be ‘infringing’ in addition to paying damages.

Though this is a dispute related to trademark infringement and the distribution of unlicensed merchandise, the fact that it revolves around one of the most well-known and marketable sports franchises in the nation, especially in the past two seasons, is noteworthy. This is due in large part to the fact that the atmosphere, or ‘sportscape’, around Wrigley Field is unlike any other—with the exception of Fenway Park—in major professional sports. Nestled in a quiet, North Side neighborhood, the Friendly Confines did not even have lights until 1988, much to the chagrin of nearby residents. Whether it is the bricks and ivy that line the outfield wall, the raucous bleacher seats, the manual scoreboard, or the history that is associated with a 102-year-old baseball mecca that has seen countless legends of the game, taking in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field is something that all sports fans should have the opportunity to do.

Successful events have a multiplier effect in the community. Wrigley Field consistently sells out, and 42,000+ spectators as well as tens of thousands more that watch in Wrigleyville bars surrounding the stadium provide lots of capital to the City of Chicago, the Cubs, and Major League Baseball. Frankly, the Chicago Cubs franchise is not hurting for money or struggling in any way.

I argue that street vendors only enhance the sportscape around the stadium. Clever slogans adorn shirts supporting Chicago’s sports teams, every type of hat imaginable in all colors line street stands, and souvenirs change hands at an alarming rate outside of the stadium.

Stopping by street vendors for snacks and merchandise is a tradition for many. My dad went to his first Cubs game in 1968, and vendors were strewn about Wrigleyville doing the same thing they do today, selling cheaper memorabilia than what is offered inside the stadium. Has it crossed anybody’s mind in the Major League Baseball offices that if fans pay less for Cubs gear, they will have more money for concessions and the like once they enter the Friendly Confines? If Major League Baseball wants to discourage the sale of unlicensed merchandise, maybe they should not eclipse consumer pain points associated with cost of attendance.

Another non sequitur is the fact that many celebrities, players, and Joe Maddon himself are photographed wearing unlicensed merchandise. These pictures are then circulated on official social media pages. Part of what makes the Chicago Cubs so easy to cheer for is the likability of Joe Maddon and how loose he keeps the clubhouse. It is hard to believe that the same organization that plants its poorly-disguised general manager in the bleacher seats and encourages player costume contests when traveling takes such issue with the very merchandise and fun-loving environment that their most valuable assets have come to embrace.

The court proceedings seem trivial and awfully selective. Did the Cubs and Major League Baseball care about Wrigleyville vendors for the incredibly long stretch of years in which the lovable losers lost an embarrassing amount of games? The answer is no. Interestingly enough; this becomes an issue when the ball club has a legitimate shot at ending a one-hundred-eight-year title drought. If history is any indicator, the future is bleak for the vendors. Community efforts to keep lights out of Wrigley Field in the late 1980’s were unsuccessful, as were the cries of Waveland and Sheffield Avenue rooftop bleacher companies during the installation of left and right-field video boards just a short time ago.

All in all, whether or not street and online vendors will be able to sell their unlicensed products will not make much of a difference in Wrigleyville’s sportscape. The bars and restaurants will still be there, but it will take some time to adjust to the impending disappearance of those lively salesmen and their wacky souvenirs. Just as many special event entities turn a blind eye to normally frowned-upon behavior, the Chicago Cubs and Major League Baseball have let this transpire for the enjoyment of many for decades on end. No matter what the court finds, I will still have my favorite t-shirt of all time: a “You Can’t Quiet The Riot”—in reference to former Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot—royal blue shirt that I bought off of a Wrigleyville vendor many years ago.

quiet-the-riot

photo credit: alexabboud Crowd Outside Wrigley via photopin (license)

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