Second no more? Playoffs give White Sox chance to build base

CHICAGO (AP) — Kenny Heuer and his fiancée, Carrie Campbell, showed up dressed for the occasion.

He made his loyalties clear by wearing an Eloy Jiménez jersey for a game between his beloved Chicago White Sox and the crosstown Cubs at Guaranteed Rate Field in late August. She showed hers with an Ian Happ shirt.

For a couple with opposing allegiances, the hourlong drive from their home in La Porte, Indiana, was not an easy one.

“It’s been a rough ride up here so far,” Campbell said, laughing. “In good fun.”

While the Cubs set their sights on the future after breaking up their championship core, the fun could just be starting on the South Side.

The White Sox are in the playoffs for the second year in a row, a first for the charter American League franchise, with their sights set on the biggest prize after running away with the Central division. It won’t be easy, starting with a division series against the AL West champion Houston Astros.

But in a city where they’re often overshadowed by their neighbors a few miles north, they have a rare opportunity. With young and vibrant stars such as Tim Anderson and Luis Robert and Jimenez, not to mention reigning AL MVP José Abreu, the spotlight is on them.

It goes beyond a shot at the World Series. It’s also their opportunity to cash in and expand their base.

“They need to get known by more than just their core fans,” sports marketing executive Marc Ganis said. “And there’s a barn door that is wide open to them right now because of the Cubs, because of the rebuilding that the Cubs are in and the trades they made of almost all of their known stars.

“This is a window of opportunity that won’t last all that long,” he said. “They need to get their players known. They need to get them have their names out there in the community. They need to get more attention to the White Sox.”

Ganis, cofounder of Chicago-based consulting group Sportscorp, said the White Sox have a chance to increase local sponsorship, ticket sales, suite sales and other stadium revenues by 25% to 40% without having to cut into the Cubs’ fan base because of the size of the population. That hinges on their marketing and how far the team advances.

That means getting out in the community, having players cut commercials with local businesses like car dealerships and using social media platforms to show them having fun and shining a light on them in ways that don’t show between the foul lines.

A good example to him: Kris Bryant going undercover as a Lyft driver in 2015.

The Cubs were in a breakthrough season following a major rebuild that peaked in 2016 with their first World Series championship since 1908. Bryant was on his way to winning NL Rookie of the Year. But he wasn’t quite as recognizable as he would become.

The video shows Bryant behind the wheel, in sunglasses, asking unsuspecting passengers why his picture isn’t on the side of the ballpark as they drive past Wrigley Field. When he tells another rider he plays baseball, the guy asks why he’s not in the pros. And, of course, it captures their stunned reactions when their driver tells them who he is.

“That’s marketing,” Ganis said. “That’s creativity. That’s working with your sponsors or encouraging companies to work with your players.”

White Sox chief revenue and marketing officer Brooks Boyer said the organization is ready for the moment. They’ve been promoting the team’s youth and exuberance the past two years through their “Change the Game” campaign and were set to roll out TV and social media spots with players and sponsors.

“You look at our team and we’re probably the closest thing to an NBA-like team of making the game fun,” he said. “We continue that from a marketing perspective because change the game is ultimately what these guys are trying to do and change the perception of how much fun baseball can be, change the way our fans look at the White Sox.”

Boyer sees the White Sox in a similar position to the Cubs in 2016, with a core of likable young players who appear poised to contend for years. And he wonders what might have been had fans been allowed in the ballpark in 2020 and if there were no attendance restrictions at the start of this season.

The White Sox drew more than 2 million fans seven straight years starting with the 2005 championship season, including a franchise-record 2,957,414 in 2006. Attendance in 2019, when they won just 72 games, was 1,649,775.

It ended up this year at 1,596,385. Once they started operating at full capacity on June 25, the White Sox averaged about 28,000.

The Cubs’ attendance, by comparison, was 1,978,934 this season and ranged from about 2.6 million to 3.3 million over two-plus decades prior to the pandemic. They’re now rebuilding after trading away Bryant as well as Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo rather than risk losing them as free agents this offseason.

“Painful to see what’s happening now,” said Mark Stephens, who was thinking of switching allegiances from the Cubs to the White Sox. “They had a good team the first half, and they traded everybody away.”

But to Ganis, it’s not really about poaching from the Cubs’ base. It’s about attracting those “team agnostic” fans who just want to see a Chicago team do well.

In a city of about 2.75 million and a six-county region of 8.45 million, Ganis said there are enough people for the White Sox to build their base without eating into the Cubs’.

He also said it’s unlikely the South Siders would overtake them anytime soon. After all, the Cubs built a national audience when their games were shown nationally on WGN and Harry Caray was calling them. And they play in an iconic ballpark in a thriving neighborhood.

The White Sox offer a pleasant experience in a stadium conveniently located next to the Dan Ryan Expressway. And, most important, an exciting team.

“It’s been awesome,” Heuer said. “I’m just hoping they can finish it out.”

The White Sox have just one World Series championship since 1917. That they might win another in a year in which the rebuilding Cubs traded away their stars makes it that much sweeter for Bob Schneider of suburban Skokie, Illinois.

“I think the directions are perfect. We’re up. They’re down,” said Schneider, wearing a T-shirt with the phrase “Friends Don’t Let Friends Be Cubs Fans.”

At 22, Chris Egan of South Bend, Indiana, has few memories of the 2005 championship season. The lifelong White Sox fan called the Cubs’ run in 2016 “the darkest point of my life.”

Fair to say, he’s enjoying this.

“They feel like a team of destiny,” he said.

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