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The White Sox take a Chance

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The Magnificent Coloring Day Festival was a massive success. It could also be a way forward for the White Sox.

Chance the Rapper on Opening Day
Chance the Rapper on Opening Day
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring Day was an unqualified commercial success.  The all-day music festival broke attracted 48,000 people, breaking the US Cellular Field attendance record set during the 2003 All-Star Game.  

It was also an unqualified critical success.

Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune praised the "stellar lineup" of Chance, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Tyler, The Creator, 2 Chainz, and Lil Wayne (and that was before cameos from Kanye West, Common, and comedian Hannibal Buress).  The New York Times called it the counterpoint to Disco Demolition.  Red Eye said Magnificent Coloring Day set a high bar for the next music festival at the Home of the White Sox.

I covered the crowd reaction for WBBM Radio.  It was a newsworthy event, seeing as it was the first concert at US Cellular Field since Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 2003.  

Talking to fans in the parking lot outside the ballpark was a strange experience.  I parked the news vehicle in my usual game day location on Normal.  Walking down 37th street was a bittersweet experience.  It was a late September afternoon.  Warm enough to seem like summer, but the lower angle of the sun and changing leaves were signs that autumn was lurking around the corner. Someday, the White Sox will play beyond October 1st.  It will not happen in 2016.

Tailgating was forbidden, which is why I didn’t see the familiar parking lot sights of mini-grills, lawn chairs, and bags.  The number of people wearing Frank Thomas jerseys was considerably smaller.

Also missing from the crowd?  Cynicism about the venue.  People were genuinely excited to attend a concert at the future Guaranteed Rate Field.  No jokes about the impending name change.  No gripes about the historical significance of the venue relative to the ballpark at Clark and Addison. No jokes about the Ligues.  No concerns about the neighborhood or atmosphere or promotions or perception or trendy bars near the stadium.  There was a great show planned at US Cellular Field, and people were going to see it.

The Magnificent Coloring Day Fest reinforced a very simple lesson.  Attendance is pegged to the product on the field.  On Saturday, Chance delivered a superior product.  People paid to see it.  if the White Sox get back into the business of supplying a superior product, people will pay to see it again.  Until that happens, all of the Mullet Nights in the world won’t be enough to push the annual attendance above two million.  

The White Sox deserve credit for bringing Chance into the fold.  Chance was born Chancellor Bennett in 1993.  He grew up in the West Chatham neighborhood, just a short drive down the Dan Ryan from 35th and Shields.  His father worked for Harold Washington and Barack Obama.  He’s now in the Emanuel administration.  

Chance’s rise through the music world began after graduating from Jones College Prep in 2011. He wore Sox hats on stage, so it made perfect sense for the team to reach out.  The relationship between Chance and the Sox has been a good one.  His custom designed Sox hats were an instant best-seller.  He’s arguably the second most famous Sox fan on the planet (the guy who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is still at the top of the list).  

The Cubs, of course, have a very robust celebrity fan base.  Eddie Vedder will take up permanent residence at Wrigley during the postseason.  Outside of Chance and President Obama, the White Sox celebrity fan base consists of local media personalities and the guy who played Screaming Idiot Number Two in the remake of "The Poseidon Adventure."  

The celebrity fan gap closes ever so slightly.  

A concert is also very un-Sox.   

Comiskey Park had regular use as a concert venue.  The Beatles played Comiskey in 1965.  Bill Veeck was able to drum up additional box office in the late 1970’s by renting out Comiskey to Rush, Aerosmith, Foreigner, Journey, and Eddie Money.  After a three year lull, the concerts continued into the Reinsdorf era.  The WLS RockFest brought The Police, The Fixx, Joan Jett, and A Flock of Seagulls to Comiskey in July of 1983.  The Jacksons, on their Victory tour, played a three night engagement at the ballpark in the fall of 1984.  The country band Alabama played what would be the final concert at Comiskey Park on August 1, 1985.  

The first concert at New Comiskey Park was an accident.  A White Sox employee won VH-1’s "Ultimate Office Party" contest in 1997.  The prize was a private show from Duran Duran.  The Rolling Stones played Comiskey in 2002, and Springsteen set up shop at US Cellular in August of 2003.  

The Tribune suggested that Magnificent Coloring Day could usher in a new era of concerts at Guaranteed Rate Field, and that’s a good thing for the White Sox.  As an outdoor concert venue, The Rate would shoot to the top of the list.   It’s walkable.  Expressway access is much easier than Soldier Field, Wrigley, or the United Center.  Three public transportation lines stop at the front door.

If the White Sox are going to engage in a rebuild, they need to do something besides baseball to cajole people to go to the ballpark.  If customers enjoy Guaranteed Rate Field as a concert venue, perhaps they would be a little more amenable to to attending a baseball game.

The success of Magnificent Coloring Day should also demonstrate to the White Sox that stepping outside of the comfort zone can pay tremendous dividends.  US Cellular isn’t used for concerts. The acts on the bill are diverse in a million different ways.  The White Sox could have held firm to "tradition," and told Chance to throw his party in a nearby park.  They didn’t, and instead the team ended up hosting a tremendous celebration of Chicago and music.  It generated the best publicity for the White Sox in years.

It will be a long road back to respectability for the White Sox.  Fans are understandably skittish about falling in love again.  Since 2009, free agent acquisitions, highly touted prospects, pennant races, and hot starts have all turned to ash.  The once-a-decade "sun shines on a dog’s rear end" pace of White Sox playoff appearances aren’t enough to bring fans back to Sox games on a consistent basis.  The White Sox need a multi-year playoff run similar to their AL Central division rivals in order to pack the park again.  That would be the baseball equivalent of Chance’s festival on Saturday.  A product people will be excited to see.