The CCO Interview with John McDonough and Joe Rios of the Chicago Cubs

The History of the Cubs Convention from the Creator of the Cubs Convention, John McDonough and the Manager of Special Events Joe Rios

The Cubs Convention….why? I know every year the Cubs hold their annual convention to kick off the upcoming baseball season. The Cubs invite current and former players, people pile into the Hilton and it becomes ‘Cubs Heaven’, but how did it get started? There is little information on the Internet concerning the History of the Cubs Convention. The one name that kept surfacing was John McDonough.

John McDonough is the Vice President of Marketing and Broadcasting for the Chicago Cubs. He created the Cubs Convention, and became the architect of the Celebrity Guest Conductor of the 7th Inning Stretch after Harry Caray passed away in 1998. Mr. McDonough came up with the idea of the ‘Believe’ bracelets. He started with the Cubs as the Director of Sales and Promotions in 1983 and took his current position in 1991.

I was thrilled at the opportunity to do an interview with Mr. McDonough and Joe Rios, Manager of Special Events, Player Relations and Entertainment….and these are my notes from what they had to say…. (Chicago Cubs Online) How did you come up with the concept of the Cubs Convention?

(John McDonough) The reason for the creation of the Cubs Convention was to extend the Cubs name and brand to the fans for the entire 12 months of the year, just not the baseball season. The idea was brought to Dallas Green in 1985. The original idea was to breakdown the barriers and to make it interactive between the fans and the team by inviting old and current Cubs to the Convention. The main idea was to put on an event during the winter that had never been done. The convention has worked very well and has been sold out the last 19 years and has raised $3.5 million dollars to date. So after 1989, the 1990 Cubs Convention after we won the division we were selling out 1800 room nights per night at the Hyatt Regency Chicago so approx 3600 room nights and 15,000 people we really knew we had a success on our hands. We also knew that the players enjoy coming to it. Like I said it had a very colligate atmosphere. The current guys enjoyed coming the former guys enjoyed coming we pay them very little, it’s nominal at best. But I think they even enjoy getting together and breaking up the winter and doing this and the fans love it and the hotel sells out, 5-6 months in advance and the tickets every year are scalped there is huge demand for it and it has an amazing following.

(CCO) It is my understanding the Cubs convention was the first of it’s kind and has been used as a blueprint for other such conventions. Is that correct?

(John McDonough) Correct, it predated anything in the NFL, NBA or the NFL Experience. In fact the first few years the NBA, NFL, NHL and other baseball teams attended the Cubs Convention they kind of looked at it as what is this off-season event thing and I think what it spun into is the NFL and the NBA Experience and some of what they do during the All Star game, you know I think this was the prototype for all of those.

(CCO) What year did the convention begin?

(John McDonough) The first one was in January of 1986 this is the 21st Annual Cubs Convention.

(CCO) So you started with the Cubs in 1983?

(John McDonough) Yes, that is correct, the fall of 1983.

(CCO) And you became the VP of Marketing and Broadcasting in 1991?

(John McDonough) 1990 or 1991, correct.

(CCO) Was the original goal of the Cubs Convention to be a fundraiser for Cubs Care or did that evolve in later years?

(John McDonough) No I think it always had charitable component I think from the beginning we always looked at this one this event being the largest charitable event on our calendar.

(CCO) What types of organizations does Cubs Care benefit?

(John McDonough) Inner city little league primarily, youth baseball leagues, recreation rehab institutes in Chicago. Organizations that involve park districts by improving parks in the area.

There is a park on the Northside of Chicago called Thillens that was a minor league stadium that is 70 something years old and we donated a half a million dollars this year to keep it open and viable so we really put the money back into little league programs and youth baseball.

(CCO) Last year at the Cubs Convention you introduced the ‘Believe’ bracelets and did you sell around 50,000 during the weekend?

(John McDonough) At the Convention last year we sold 50,000.

(CCO) Are you guys planning anything like that this year?

(John McDonough) No, there won’t be anything this year. In terms of that had kind of item. The ‘Believe’ bracelet had a unique shelf life I think for the year we ended up selling close to 700,000.

(CCO) Well, I’m wearing one right now.

(John McDonough) Oh, good so is my son.

(CCO) I got it right before Spring Training and I haven’t taken it off since.

(John McDonough) Good keep it with you. Our day will come.

At that point Mr. McDonough and I spoke about Spring Training and the tickets that had just gone on sale that morning. We talked about how nice it is to go to Arizona in March and watch baseball at HoHoKam Park. I mentioned I thought HoHoKam looked like a miniature Wrigley Field and he seemed to agree with me.

I asked Mr. McDonough if he could make any recommendations that I could pass along to first time convention goers that would help them have a better experience? At that point I was able to speak with Joe Rios, who has helped put the Cubs Convention together for a number of years and has helped the Convention become a big success.

(CCO) I had a visitor on the website several days ago that mentioned he was attending the convention this year for the first time. Can you give any tips to a first time convention attendee for them to get the best experience?

(Joe Rios) It is a 3-day weekend Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Friday is very important for a Cub fan in my opinion because that is when we have our opening ceremony and we unveil all of the players that are there, we introduce them one by one. We have a highlight video that WGN TV runs, about a 10-minute video of the past season and the Cubs Caravan. It’s pretty moving and gets you pumped up and makes you want to go out and see a ballgame that very evening. It’s a kind of experience you have to experience first hand. So you go there and go to the opening ceremonies. From there, on Friday night you have the opportunity to get players photographs and autographs. There are a couple of sessions and we have 1000 to 1500 fans and we play Cubs Bingo. We have an actual bingo company that comes out. There are 5 to 6 winners at a time, each time somebody yells CUBS or BINGO. Every winner gets an autographed item or some type of swag….autographed jersey, gift certificate from a local restaurant and so forth that has been donated….it’s very fun and it’s pretty big….that’s Friday. So if your coming and you can only come one day make it Saturday and if you can come two days come Friday and Saturday. Saturday all day long, there is a schedule of events and you can prioritize your day where you can try between 9:00 and 11:30 to get some autographs, you can plan your attack if you wanted and maybe Noon or 1:00 you want to go to a couple of sessions because your favorite Cubs are there or former Cubs are there and there is an interaction room for kids so they can jump around while they are there, there is batting cages and pitching cages they can do all of those things. For collectors all day long we have a vendor area where people are selling Cubs memorabilia and sports memorabilia and those are open from 9:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night and that gives you the opportunity to get that one of a kind Ernie Banks item and then get in line to get it autographed….all of those opportunities are there. Now as far as sessions it depends on what interests you personally. Sunday is a half a day. Sunday is more of a day to see what is going on at Wrigley Field, find out what’s going on with our Minor League system. People want to find out about what is going on with this prospect that I have been hearing about for years, when he is going to come up and what are you guys going to do without all the good players you traded like a Dontrelle Willis. How did you guys come up with that idea when you come up with trade scenarios….stuff like that. It’s kinda all over the board.

(CCO) That sounds just great

(Joe Rios) So first time goer, I think you just have to go. I mean if you are a Cub Fan you’ll enjoy it. Once a Cubs fan always a Cubs fan, once a Cubs player always a Cubs player whether you play one year or you play twenty years. You know we brought back Bill Buckner who is probably better known as a Boston Red Sox….Cubs’ fans loved it. He played great here; he won a batting title and he was only here two or three years. Dave Kingman….he’s a fan favorite. Eric Karros became a fan favorite from the 2003 team, we brought him back. Cubs’ fans go crazy over him. It is a great atmosphere for any Cubs fan, for any sports fan. If you don’t leave a Cub fan your not alive.

For repeat goers it becomes a weekend to reminisce or to have a reunion of sorts. People have been getting together for 12 or 13 years and they meet up at the Cubs Convention and wonder what is going on with each other. For some people it is the 15th year we have seen you here….it’s kinda fun. We have fans that have been to all 21, or will have been to all 21, this is the 21st actually.

The sessions change from year to year. We try to mix and match. Basically we know what the fans want that is coming. They want to meet the players, they want to get an autograph and they want to find out what is going on with the team. So we try to incorporate the players and the fans the best way possible and not try to kill them with the price….it is all going to charity and its quite affordable. A lot of families make vacations out of this week. There are a lot of people from out of town and out of state. They make this a 4-5 day vacation. They come in on Thursday and leave on Monday or Tuesday. It’s kind of amazing. It’s almost like tailgating inside of a hotel.

At that point Mr. Rios and I spoke about Spring Training.

It was a real pleasure to speak with John McDonough and Joe Rios. They were both very courteous and I appreciate the time they spent with me.

Spring Training and Opening Day is right around the corner….and I cannot wait.