When Laura Ricketts and the rest of her family closed on the deal to purchase the Chicago Cubs baseball franchise last fall, the furthest thing from her mind was the impact this would have on the gay community. Even though Laura was an out lesbian activist and philanthropist in Chicago for several years, the Cubs deal was all about the team.
A few months later, Ricketts does realize the impact of being the only openly gay owner of a major league men's sports franchise in the U.S., and also a rare woman owner and board member. She wants to make sure to serve both the Cubs and her community well.
And this year, Ricketts, 42, and her partner of five years are not just becoming part of Cubs history, they are also welcoming a new Cubs fan into the family: Laura is pregnant and is expecting a baby girl in May.
"We're extremely excited [ that ] we're expecting a baby in spring," Laura said. "This is a big year for us, not only in regards to the Cubs acquisition, but if you can imagine, for my partner and I an even bigger blessed event. My whole family is excited."
Laura sat down for an interview with Windy City Times at Wrigley Field Feb. 17, as the Cubs head into Spring training and her family looks forward to their first season as owners of the Cubs. The team is among the country's most loved, despite having not won the World Series in 102 years.
Laura and her three brothers ( Pete, Tom and Todd ) grew up in Omaha, Neb., in the 1960s and 1970s. Laura was the third oldest. Their father J. Joseph Ricketts founded the company later known as TD Ameritrade in the 1970s, and he and his wife Marlene worked extremely hard to grow the company. It took years for their sweat equity to pay off, but it did just that and the family joined the ranks of the country's richest once TD Ameritrade, an online brokerage firm, went public.
Tom, the second oldest child, spearheaded the Cubs effort. Laura said that the plan came about in part because the family wanted to work together in a family business environment again. All the family members are co-owners, and the four siblings make up the board of directors. Tom is Executive Chairman of the Cubs, and the most hands-on day-to-day.
Laura's area of emphasis for the Cubs is government relations, community relations and philanthropy, specifically through the Cubs Care charitable giving. Chicago Cubs Charities has given millions of dollars over the years, including donations to neighboring gay groups such as Center on Halsted ( the gymnasium is sponsored by the Cubs ) , Howard Brown Health Center and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
"Since 1991 Cubs Care has given over $15 million. They've given over $1 million a year the last five years," Laura said. The mission is to make grants to non-profits that aid children with special needs, support youth sports programs, help victims of domestic violence and assist social service efforts in Lakeview. "In general, I'd like to see all of those efforts expand, we should be doing more, and the family and the team have expressed an interest in expanding," Laura said. "I think the Cubs have come quite a long way, there's just always more that can be done. I'd like to see it expand for the LGBT community. We hosted the Closing Ceremony for the Gay Games in 2006, and we support LGBT organizations within our community."
Exploring the world
All four Ricketts children were encouraged to explore their own passions, and all four ended up in Chicago for college. Todd attended Loyola while the others went to the University of Chicago. Laura started as an economics major then took a break before returning to get a degree in philosophy in 1995. After working in the "real world," Laura returned to school, this time to receive a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1998. Chicago pulled her back, and she worked at a law firm before leaving to follow her entrepreneurial spirit, co-founding the internet venture Ecotravel, LLC, where she is still the president.
The timing of Ecotravel's formation wasn't ideal: starting an online venture to promote ecotourism right before the 911 tragedy and the dot.com bubble bursting. Laura and her partners realized that in order to weather the challenging environment they would need to take a more long-term approach and alter their business plan.
"I began getting more involved with LGBT volunteering as well as housing issues," Laura said. "A lot of my time was going to help nonprofit organizations. One was Housing Opportunities for Women, where I now chair their leadership council. They provide comprehensive support services for women. They find them permanent homes, it's not a shelter, and then they provide support to help them avoid homelessness again. They deal with the issues that made them homeless to begin with, the underlying issues, such as domestic violence, health issues and substance abuse."
By the mid 2000s, Laura also was getting more involved in the gay community, specifically through Lambda Legal.
"The political environment several years ago made me realize the importance of being out and standing up for myself, and really being involved in my community," she said. "I had participated somewhat in all sorts of organizations in Chicago, but I was really impressed with Lambda Legal, the impact they have not just on individuals but on the community as a whole. I was also trying to help get more women involved. A lot of fundraisers in the community are very male, so I started working with Mona Noriega who was at Lambda at the time, and Cindy Homan at Lambda, to start doing women's social events. We also partnered with lesbian entrepreneurs and other women's and gay groups. We worked with GayCo ( a performance group ) , the Chopping Block, and others to make women aware of the important work Lambda does. The reach of their work is amazing."
Laura continues on Lambda Legal's national board, where she has served almost five years. She's also on the board of GayCo and has co-chaired events for Equality Illinois ( which recently honored Laura for her work ) and Howard Brown Health Center.
Laura has also gotten more political, and served on Barack Obama's LGBT finance committee during the 2008 campaign. She now co-chairs the Democratic National Committee's LGBT Leadership Council nationally. "The aim is outreach to the LGBT community, and also to do fundraising within the LGBT community," she said. "It's really to raise the visibility of our issues."
What does Laura think of the recent call by some gay activists to "pause" donations to the DNC until more movement is made on gay issues? Laura said she has "mixed feelings."
"I appreciate the impatience," she said. "I think it's created a healthy dialogue, which is needed. I think that we need more people speaking up, saying it's not enough, that we don't have enough. We need that advocating voice. It also needs to be constructive, to open the dialogue. At the same time, we really need to strengthen the president's hand. I appreciate the pushing … I want these rights, too … . But I don't think withdrawing from the process is the answer. In the end it's good more people are speaking out.
I really believe Obama's heart is in the right place, and that he fully intends to follow through on his campaign promises. I have no doubt about that. It's a matter of a timetable. And of course, for us, tomorrow is too late, and yesterday is not fast enough."
For Laura, coming out to her family as a Democrat may have been more difficult than coming out as a lesbian.
"I grew up in a very conservative family. Nebraska is very conservative," she said. "I was raised Catholic. On the gay issue, my family was immediately accepting. Every single member of my family is supportive, they all love my partner and treat her as a member of the family, an in-law. I came out to various family members in my early 30s. I didn't really come out to myself until I was about 30. I knew, but I really didn't take the step and come out until then."
The harder one was explaining her political views. "While there are differences of opinion in our family, we're all very accepting of each other," she said. "And we appreciate the different perspectives. I grew up white, middle class, conservative and Christian. When I came out, suddenly I was the other. I think it's a real gift to have that perspective, and it helps me appreciate when people have a different perspective. It makes me appreciate my family members when they have a different perspective.."
Laura's brother Peter Ricketts was the Republican nominee for the 2006 U.S. Senate seat from Nebraska, where he and his family live. He ran on a very conservative platform, including against gay marriage and abortion, and was helped in his unsuccessful bid by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
"When he ran for office, we talked about the issues more," Laura said. "At the time it was more of an issue, it was more relevant. We're on opposite sides of some issues. … I don't know about other families, but in our family we're always going to have differences of opinion, on not just political issues. I don't know any family that doesn't have that. There's always that underlying relationship and underlying affection we have for one another. I can't see anything affecting the overall relationship. When you love somebody, your motivation is to really have a serious dialogue."
About being raised Catholic, Laura also has mixed emotions. "I think that being raised Catholic really provided a lot of valuable underpinnings, as to who I am, how I live my life. I think there's a lot of beauty and truths that I've been taught, in how to live, how to conduct yourself and walk in the world. To whom much is given, much is expected. That comes very much from my Catholic upbringing. You can see that in my whole family, particularly with regards to the Cubs. While it was very hard-won fight to become owners of the Cubs, I think we all greatly appreciate the unique position we are in. How fortunate we are to really be stewards of this amazing and historic franchise. We don't take that lightly at all. To appreciate that, while it's a very privileged position, it's also a responsibility to the fans, the city, the community, and part of that is the LGBT community. To appreciate this privilege that has been given to us, to make something out of it, to give back, to do something good with it."
Laura's own interest in sports came at an early age. "I like to say I was the best athlete in the family," she said, laughing. "My mother would agree with that, but my brothers might argue. I was always in some kind of sport, year-round. Softball, volleyball, basketball, track. All year round. Softball was my primary sport. … I really loved softball. Growing up in Nebraska, the whole family were Cornhusker football fans. There aren't a lot of pro sports there. … So coming to Chicago, it was fabulous, there are so many great sports teams, and the Cubs are a big part of that."
Laura also says that Title IX, which mandated equality for women in sports, was just in time for her own athletic interests. "I think you can track the year that my Little League division started offering softball to girls back to Title IX. My brothers had participated in baseball, and it's something I wanted to do as well. Participating in sports, particularly team sports, I find teaches you so much about how to work with people, it teaches you teamwork, how to be a team member, whether in athletics or at work."
Buying the Cubs
The family's interest in sports thus made it appealing when Tom first suggested they purchase the Cubs. But where did they get the money for the purchase? That traces back to their family's roots.
"My parents founded Ameritrade in various iterations in the mid 1970s. We were not raised with money at all, we were the poorest on the block," Laura said. "My parents scrimped and saved and every penny went back into the business. We grew up watching them work hard, and with that work ethic, putting in the hours. Obviously, it paid off for them, they are very successful, but all the success they really earned. Ameritrade didn't become as big as it did until most of us were grown. Ameritrade went public when I was in law school. My father really encouraged us to really go and find our own careers and passions, and after age 30 we could consider coming back to work for Ameritrade. I did think about it briefly, but decided I wanted to stay in Chicago."
Ameritrade did eventually bring a lot of wealth to their family, "but it's no longer our family business, and hasn't been for a long time. [ But ] we all grew up with a sense of family working together to really build a quality product," she said.
It was Tom's idea to pursue the Cubs. "He realized the Tribune would likely be wanting to sell, and thought this might be a way we could put some of that community family wealth together and it would be a way to bring the family together to create some of that family business environment for all of us," Laura said. "It would be a project we could all participate in for generations to come, not just us but our children and their children.
"I think we all kind of thought it was a bit if a dream. We've all been Cubs fans for years. Tom was really our leader. The Cubs are fortunate to have Tom at the helm. He has the personality and character that is so well suited to the job and he was able to navigate the whole family through the process. He's very smart, patient, he's very strategic, he is very diplomatic, and an incredibly hard worker. At times during the [ years-long ] process various family members wanted to just give up, it was so hard, and complicated. Tom was right person to help us stay on course and weed through the details and ramifications. We were all part of the process but the bulk of the work fell on Tom's shoulders.
"Because of the nature of the family ownership and because it is a significant investment for the family, all of us intend to be a little more involved than you might find for the average board member of a corporation," Laura said. "I actually am spending a fair amount of my time on Cubs business and I could be doing a lot more."
When the $900 million purchase of the Cubs went through in October 2009, the Ricketts family outlined three primary goals they had for the franchise. First, they want to "build a winning organization both on the field and off. That means being competitive every year and bringing a World Series championship to the city," Laura said.
"Second, we want to be good stewards of Wrigley Field, and that means we will make sure to keep the history and beauty of Wrigley, but at the same time do improvements so it can last for another generation or two," she said. "And third, we want to be good neighbors. One of the great things about Wrigley is that it is in this neighborhood, unlike stadiums off in middle of nowhere in a sea of parking lots. It's one of the things that makes Wrigley and the Cubs different. We appreciate that. "
Has the community welcomed the family so far? "I think so," Laura said. "There is a sense of relief that there are human faces behind the ownership of the team. And the fact that we're Cubs fans, that we appreciate the history and uniqueness of this franchise and share the same passion as the other fans, is important. I think there's a lot of hope and optimism. We've had a very warm reception from the neighborhood and the rooftop owners. I think people appreciate we are candid and want an open and honest dialogue. People have their concerns and issues … night games, concerts, the normal things. But overall we feel the reception has been very warm."
Laura explained that changes at Wrigley will include improved bathroom facilities for fans, plus better training facilities and locker rooms for the players. "We want to create the best fan experience in professional sports here at Wrigley," she said. "While Wrigley has this amazing charm and history, everybody knows about the challenges because of how old the stadium is. … One of the things I was most shocked about was the state of the clubhouse. It was pretty sparse. I think my high school sports facilities were probably better than what the players had. So of course we want to make them more comfortable for the players and their families. … We're also hiring a hospitality officer and team ambassadors that will be within Wrigley and around the neighborhood, to improve the fan experience. We're going to try and make it more family friendly, and have more formal planned autograph opportunities for kids."
What about the already-approved triangle building development, a parcel of land just west of the stadium? "We know the people in the community are anxious to get that up. We are too. But we want to be very thoughtful and measured about what we build because we want it to be useful for a long time to come," Laura said. Plans could include training facilities for the players, office space, and upscale dining and retail.
As for helping achieve victory on the field? "The facilities and how we treat the players and the amenities we provide for them are all part of that," Laura said. "We're hiring a team nutritionist so they can eat better, here and away. And a lot of work has been done on the minor league system; that takes an awful long time to develop. We're going to start seeing the fruits of that, it's going to start to pay off for us. It's about being strategic, about the players you sign. It is not necessarily what you're paying, but their skills, their character. There's so much about baseball that's psychological as well. People need to be treated like the winners we expect them to be. There's not one answer to getting to the World Series. I think if you consistently put a team on the field that can compete, every year, then you know it's going to happen. That's our priority."
Being a lesbian owner
Interestingly for Laura, being a lesbian "was one of the things I didn't think too much about before we closed [ the sale ] last fall. We were working so hard to get the deal done. What did occur to me, and the rest of the family, is what a great honor this is. And how exciting it would be, but also a big responsibility, and how much work it would be. So I thought about it much more in that context than actually being a gay owner, and being a woman. It was really after we closed that that aspect of it became much more present for me.
"We all feel a great sense of responsibility," Laura continues. "For me personally, I feel like I'm in an even more unique position being a woman who is an owner, who is also a director, and then also being an openly gay owner of a major professional sports team. I'm just beginning to appreciate what a unique position this is. It's humbling. I feel even more responsibility, it makes me want to do even more to work even harder, to really honor that opportunity I've been given."
Laura said that she has seen no backlash from fans, players, other baseball owners or Major League Baseball.
"The league did a background check," she said. "They wanted to know all the organizations we're involved with, where we went to school, where we invested and the jobs we've had. They do a pretty extensive background check. In terms of the LGBT issue, it was never an issue at all."
How would Laura respond if homophobic comments are made in the locker room, or to the media?
"I haven't really had a single incident of any anti-LGBT prejudice or uncomfortable incidents," Laura said. "It really has not been a factor in terms of my involvement with the team, the players, the people working here, the league. Everybody's been respectful. I think that obviously is an issue in professional sports and sports in general. We're just getting started here. Issues may come up. I am not a shrinking violet and I've been an advocate, so I'll do all I can if something does happen.
"I think a lot of those issues that come up are born out of ignorance," she concluded. "The way to dispel that ignorance is to live your life, be who you are, live by example, show people who you are and not hide from it, not back down from it. Most of the time people are very respectful of that. That's been my experience."