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Bears may offer suite life at ground level

The Bears are exploring the possibility of using a dramatic influx in Soldier Field advertising to bankroll construction of “bunker suites” that allow high rollers and corporate clients to watch NFL games from ground level.

Soldier Field has 133 luxury suites at varying levels, all of them above ground and on the east side of the stadium facing the Chicago skyline.

The concept of adding suites at field level was pioneered by the Seattle Seahawks and duplicated by a handful of other National Football League teams.

At Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, there are a dozen “Red Zone” suites in the end zones. Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis has eight field-level suites in the south end zone. AT&T Stadium in Dallas has 40 suites 18 inches below the field.

The Dallas suites feature indoor space and outdoor patios. Since watching the game — not the big-screen TVs inside the suites — can mean staring at the backs of players on the sidelines, fans have the option of walking up a private stairway to a premium seat in the lower level.

The Dallas Cowboys got the idea of packaging field-level suites with tickets in the lower seating bowl from the National Basketball Association. There, obstructed bunker suites beneath the stands come with access to courtside seats.

Now, the Bears are joining the parade of NFL teams eyeing bunker suites as a lucrative source of revenue.

Sources said the ground-level suites are among $300 million in capital improvements at Soldier Field that could be bankrolled, in part, by a dramatic increase in stadium advertising granted to the Bears in exchange for the inconvenience of losing the south parking lot to movie mogul George Lucas’ new interactive museum.

Projects range from concourse, field and drainage improvements to adding 5,000 seats to bolster Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s long-shot bid to host the Super Bowl and, more importantly, to increase seating capacity for other revenue-generating events. Adding bunker suites — as many as could fit in Soldier Field — was described as a priority for Bears President Ted Phillips.

Marc Ganis, a sports marketing consultant who has advised numerous NFL teams on their stadium financing, said he understands why the Bears are exploring the idea of making a multi-million-dollar investment in bunker suites.

“Because the stadium has colonnades and limitations on how far you can expand it out, they need to find ways to generate added revenue inside the existing bowl,” Ganis said.

“Bunker suites have become very popular in the NFL — not because they offer a great view of the game, but because they provide a unique and intimate view of the game and the players. You have difficulty seeing the field because you’re too low. Field level doesn’t offer a height perspective to see. But you feel like you’re right in the action. You hear the pads clash and the players grunt. You can almost smell their sweat. Fans like that kind of intimate social setting, even if they can’t watch the game.”

If bunker suites are limited to the end zones at Soldier Field, there would likely be room for “a few dozen,” Ganis said.

On the sidelines, the Bears are more likely to follow the lead of the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants and Jets by creating field-level clubs with private rooms without a view of the game and nearby seats to watch the game. Since many of the Soldier Field seats are already assigned to individuals, the seats linked to sideline bunker suites “may not be contiguous,” Ganis said.

Ganis likened the changes to construction of a new administrative building for the Bulls and Blackhawks adjacent to the United Center.

“By moving offices outside the building, they’re freeing up space that administrative offices use for revenue-producing space: more clubs, private uses, space, merchandise and concession sales,” he said.

“It’s very analogous to the situation at Soldier Field. You’re taking very valuable real estate in the stadium bowl and repurposing it from storage or back of the house to the kind of space corporations and sponsors want to pay for.”

Bears spokesman Scott Hagel said the team would await the outcome of a yearlong study conducted by Populous, a Kansas City-based stadium architect, before deciding whether to build bunker suites.

“You’re putting the cart ahead of the horse,” Hagel said.

“Populous is doing a study of a variety of things. It’s a fairly expansive look at ways to expand the building for game days and non-game days. We have to wait until a plan is in place.”

In exchange for losing the south parking lot to the $400 million Lucas museum, the Bears bargained hard for a host of marketing and advertising opportunities that could go a long way toward financing stadium upgrades.

They range from selling “sponsorship and entitlement rights” to Soldier Field gates, the stadium’s ticket office and will-call building to the northeast mezzanine area, southeast lawn and Stadium Green.

Also on the list of marketing and naming rights opportunities are the north and mid-south parking garages “including, but not limited to strong branding on light poles, entry gates, passes, etc.”

In addition, the Bears won the right to install 30 “high-impact, interactive digital displays throughout Soldier Field concourse and premium areas” with locations “not limited to the main concourse, grandstand, media deck, Gate 14 entry, club and suite levels.”

Underscoring Emanuel’s contention that Bears brass were “very tough negotiators” who stood up for their fans, the team’s newly amended lease includes the right to sell “entitlement and/or sponsorships rights to any additional and/or future re-design improvements or enhancements to Soldier Field” contemplated by the Populous study.

That feasibility study has been going on for a year and has already identified $300 million in “potential capital improvements” to the lakefront stadium.

Sources said the capital projects were viewed as so essential, the marketing agreement will live on, whether or not the Lucas Museum ever gets built. The Park District reserves the right to review advertising before installation but the agreement also states that the Park District “shall approve within 10 days” of submission.

The agreement commits the Park District and the Bears to “work together in good faith to finalize” the stadium improvement study, then “reach agreement on a plan to finance and complete specific capital improvements to the facility and game-day site” that may include a visitors center, Bears Hall of Fame, sports bar and restaurant or other retail stores.

<small><strong> Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis has field-level suites in one end zone (background). | Associated Press file photo</strong></small>
Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis has field-level suites in one end zone (background). | Associated Press file photo