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Bears want boost in ads to fund Soldier Field upgrades, expansion

Adding 5,000 seats to Soldier Field might boost capacity enough to land a Super Bowl; an expansion and other upgrades could be paid for with a boost in advertising and sponsorship money the Bears negotiated in exchange for losing their south parking lot to the Lucas Museum. | AP file photo

The Bears and the Chicago Park District have pinpointed $300 million in capital improvements at Soldier Field — including Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s dream of a 5,000-seat expansion — that could be bankrolled, in part, by a dramatic increase in stadium advertising.

In exchange for losing the South Parking Lot to movie mogul George Lucas’ $400 million interactive 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 an ongoing study conducted by Populous, a Kansas City-based stadium architect.

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

Projects range from concourse, field and drainage improvements to adding 5,000 seats to bolster Emanuel’s long-shot bid to host the Super Bowl and, more importantly, to increase seating capacity for other revenue-generating events.

“That’s certainly a possibility. It’s always something we’re looking into. It’s one of the smaller capacity stadiums in the NFL,” said a source familiar with the study.

Soldier Field’s football capacity is 61,500, and only two NFL teams play in smaller stadiums — the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings. But the Raiders want to build a new, larger stadium in Los Angeles and the Vikings are playing at the University of Minnesota only temporarily until moving to a new stadium next season.

Pressed to put a price tag on the Soldier Field expansion, the source said, “It depends on how and what type of seating you add. Do you build more suites like the Dallas Cowboys or are you talking about adding more grandstand seats?”

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 states that the Park District “shall approve within ten 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.

Bears spokesman Scott Hagel said it’s too soon to talk about how much money could be generated by the marketing opportunities or whether it would be enough to bankroll a stadium expansion.

“I don’t want to tell you yes. I don’t want to tell you no. We’re not there yet. We haven’t even hit the streets with it. We’ll learn that as we begin to explore” the advertising market, Hagel said.

“The key to marketing dollars is that the money generated goes directly into the building. We’re working together to look for the best ways to improve Soldier Field moving forward for our fans.”

In 2001, the Bears agreed to permanently forfeit their right to rake in $300 million by selling corporate naming rights to Soldier Field under pressure from then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Veterans groups and their political champion — former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn — had spent months pleading with Daley to stop the “commercial desecration” of a stadium re-dedicated in 1925 to the men and women who served in the armed forces.

Just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Daley ruled out changing the stadium’s name as U.S. soldiers prepared to wage war against terrorism. As a result, Soldier Field remains one of only a handful of NFL stadiums without a corporation’s name attached.

“No company is ever going to buy the naming rights to Soldier Field. It’s out of the question. I’m against that,” he said then.

Now, the Bears have used the inconvenience posed to their fans by the Lucas Museum project to recoup that money — and then some.

It’s not known whether Emanuel would ever be willing to re-visit the idea of allowing the Bears to sell naming rights to Soldier Field if that’s what it takes to bankroll an expansion without a subsidy from Chicago taxpayers, who just got hit with a $588 million property tax increase and first-ever garbage collection fee.

Last year, the mayor was unapologetic about studying the possibility of making Soldier Field bigger and better even as critics questioned his priorities.

“We are fighting below our weight class. That’s the way I would look at it. We capped ourselves” with a capacity of 61,500 for football and 63,500 for other events, Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times then.

“I know everybody looks at the Super Bowl. But look at this hockey event [between the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins], which we started with college hockey. You look at two years ago when we had the Mexican soccer team here. We have Liverpool coming. These things not only sell out, they sell out fast. And it’s clear that you could do more, given these super events and they would be self-financing and self-sustaining.”

Emanuel said then that it was too soon to say how much an expansion would cost or how it would be financed.

“That’s why we call it exploring,” he said. “Everything I do in every department is about exploring and asking, `Can we do something better?’ . . . [Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly] brought this up and I said, `Keep asking questions. Keep looking at it.’ ”

In the meantime, Chicago played host to the 2015 NFL Draft and put on such a good show that the league re-upped for another year.