As LA preps for Super Bowl, Bears eye new stadium of their own

At the end of its second season of operation, the NFL’s most daring project hosts the Super Bowl between the Bengals and the hometown Rams. Sometime in the next decade, the Chicago area could do the same.

SHARE As LA preps for Super Bowl, Bears eye new stadium of their own

SoFi Stadium is hosting the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Jae C. Hong, AP Photos

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — So as not to block the landing pattern of incoming flights, the most expensive stadium ever built is buried 100 feet underground three miles east of Los Angeles International Airport, between the north and south runways. 

The sweeping canopy roof is unattached to the walls of SoFi Stadium, making it indoors and outdoors all at once. From the sky, though, it becomes the biggest television on the planet. On top of the stadium’s sweeping roof sits 27,000 hexagonal pucks, each containing four LED nodes apiece. Strung together, they allow SoFi Stadium to display messages — and even live-stream events — to the thousands of people staring out airplane windows on the approach to LAX. For many, it’s the first part of the Los Angeles area they see.

In a league defined by its over-the-top ventures, SoFi Stadium is unlike any project the NFL has ever undertaken. Returning the NFL to Los Angeles — the Rams came from St. Louis and the Chargers from San Diego — took a venture bold, innovative and expensive. At a cost of $5.5 billion, paid for by Rams owner and real estate developer Stan Kroenke, the 70,240-seat stadium is attached to a 6,000-seat theater by a plaza, all underneath the sweeping roof. 

The stadium sits on a 298-acre plot, complete with a lake and landscaping designed to represent all of California, from pine trees to chaparral. The NFL Network’s West Coast offices sit in a 450,000 square foot building across a parking lot. By the time construction is completed — it’s about 65% done — developers will have at least that much retail space, plus room for 2,500 residences and 25 acres of public parkland. The office building district alone could one day be 5 million square feet.

“We have created Southern California’s first indoor-outdoor mega experience,” said Jason Gannon, SoFI Stadium’s managing director. 

The world will see it Sunday. At the end of its second season of operation, the NFL’s most daring project hosts the Super Bowl between the Bengals and the hometown Rams. 

Sometime in the next decade, the Chicago area could do the same.

• • •

Less than a week after Arlington Park Racetrack ran its last horse race in September, the Bears announced they’d agreed to buy the 326-acre plot for $197.2 million.  The team expects to close escrow sometime in the next year. 

Speaking publicly for the first time in a year, Bears chairman George McCaskey said last month he didn’t want to look beyond the escrow period. President/CEO Ted Phillips wasn’t as cautious, though. Of the land, he said  “there was nothing like it in Chicagoland.” The project, he said, would “put Arlington Heights on the map as a destination spot.” 

The Bears have a lease at Soldier Field through 2033, though the team could break it early to build the stadium they want in Arlington Heights.  Last month, McCaskey was careful not to rule out more negotiations with the City of Chicago to stay there. Speaking on WSCR-AM on Friday, mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city was “working on some plans to present to them that I think will make a very, very compelling case as to why it makes abundant sense for them to stay in Chicago.” Ultimately, she said, the “decision will be theirs.”

The Arlington Heights project would likely feature an indoor stadium to host events 12 months per year, and figures to be part of a mixed-use development with bars, restaurants, retail shops and housing. The Bears would likely partner with a developer to defray construction costs for a mixed-use property. 

It’s hard to see the Bears receiving state funding to move, though the Village of Arlington Heights could contribute. Like other recent teams that moved — both across town or into new states — the team would receive a construction loan from the NFL. 

The Arlington Park plot is a lot like the one that SoFi Stadium sits on now. Both were first horse tracks. Hollywood Park Racetrack ran its last race in December 2013 after 75 years of operation. A month later, the NFL confirmed Kroenke bought a 60-acre parcel of land next to it, though his company wouldn’t state specifically what it was for. A year later, he partnered with the owners of the track to announce plans for a stadium — even though his own team, the Rams, were still in St. Louis. 

An indoor stadium in Arlington Heights would land the Chicago area a Super Bowl for the first time ever. But probably no more than that.

“When you design a new NFL building, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get the Super Bowl at some point,” said David Manica, who owns Manica Architecture and designed Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. “And there are some factors we have to keep an eye on to make sure it can accomodate those needs when that event comes.”

Stadiums must have a seating capacity of at least 65,000 — or 3,500 more fans than Soldier Field can hold — to host a Super Bowl. The NFL requires a certain number of luxury suites and premium seats for its corporate clients and a press box large enough to accommodate media from around the world. Any new stadium the Bears build would check all those boxes. 

Super Bowl week is filled with corporate events for the NFL’s business partners. Those executives and their own clients want to be somewhere warm. From a practical standpoint, everything from party tents to al fresco dining to transportation could be ruined by snow, ice and rain. For that purpose reason, the NFL typically rewards new stadiums in cold-weather cities with one Super Bowl — and one only. 

Since 2011, the Cowboys, Colts, Jets/Giants, 49ers and Vikings have all hosted a Super Bowl in the first four years of their stadiums’ existence. Only two of those stadiums figure to host one again — AT&T Stadium in Dallas and Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco — though neither are on the current schedule.

• • •

The designer of  both SoFi Stadium and U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Lance Evans makes sure each stadium has a unique sense of place. An Arlington Heights stadium would, too.

“If I were to attack it, No. 1, there should be no preconceived notions about what the building should look like,” he said. “But there’s a rich history of the Chicago Bears and a rich architectural history of the city of Chicago. And there’s unlimited opportunity to combine those two into a unique experience.”

He was intentionally vague. Manica declined comment when asked about a Bears site — presumably because every major stadium architect, including their firms, would bid on the project were it to become reality.

Evans is a principal and director of sports for HKS Architecture, which also designed stadiums for the Colts and Cowboys. Their plans all represented the place in which they live — Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis feels a bit like Hinkle Fieldhouse of “Hoosiers” fame. AT&T Stadium is as big as the state of Texas. 

SoFi Stadium has a roof, but also a breeze. 

“It feels like Southern California when you walk into SoFi,” Evans said. 

To make a stadium feel familiar — but different — requires months of research about what makes a place unique. The ideas are then pitched to the clients — the NFL owner — and fine-tuned from there.

Manica, who first worked with the Raiders when they explored a stadium in Southern California, knew he wanted Allegiant Stadium to have a sleak, fast appearance — ”the feeling of a black Massarati,” he said. It helped that Raiders owner Mark Davis loves sports cars.

The Raiders’ color palette meant black, white and silver were the only shades Manica was allowed to use. The black glass on the outside of the stadium proved to be a smart choice, anyway, protecting it from the hot Las Vegas sun.

“Basically the building has sunglasses on, permanently,” he said. “It’s nice and cool in there, even when it’s 115 degrees out.”

Another non-negotiable detail was the signature torch that the Raiders wanted to build to mimic the one they had in Oakland. Manica decided to slide the footprint of the building as far toward the Las Vegas Strip as he could in his 62-acre plot. The torch went on that end, too, allowing fans to see the hotels in the distance. The stadium’s retractable field — the Raiders play on grass, UNLV on turf — slide out of the other end of the stadium. 

The stadium opened in 2020, only three years after the design plan began and two years after the Raiders broke ground. The Bears project would not move that fast.

When the Vikings first started planning their $1.1 billion stadium a decade ago, they didn’t have an expectation of what the stadium would look like. Evans drew on local culture. His research showed that Minnesotans valued the outdoors, even in winter, so he made the 240,000 square foot roof out of ETFE, a plastic that let natural light in. Drawing on Nordic culture of the area — and not just the team name — he designed the stadium to look like a traditional Viking longhouse, with a pitched roof. It has a practical purpose. 

“It’s a more responsible way to shift the snow off the roof,” Evans said.

SoFi Stadium has ways to deal with its own environmental challenges. On an active fault line, the stadium sits on a “seismic moat” that is 12 feet wide and 100 feet deep to keep it safe in an earthquake.

The Bears have been impressed by the Vikings’ stadium since it opened in 2016. It’s a motivating factor in trying to build their own. An Arlington Heights stadium would be far more in line with U.S. Bank Stadium than with SoFi Stadium — and likely at less than half the cost of the $5.5 billion Kroenke spent.

The design, though, would be unique to Chicago, probably playing off the tradition and history the McCaskeys hold so dear.

“The observations that we bring forth about a community or a fan base or a team —  and then seeing how those the ownership for the team responds to them — is a beautiful thing that creates the uniqueness in the architecture,” Evans said.

• • •

Because NFL teams are guaranteed only 10 games per year, mixed-use cites are the future of stadium architecture. The last five NFL stadiums to be built all cost at least $1 billion; creating year-round reasons for people to use the property — be it to go shopping or attend a concert or even live — allows revenue streams to flow 12 months a year.

That’s what the Bears are eyeing; Phillips said Arlington Heights could be an “entertainment destination with multiple facets” to the property.

“As much joy and energy and excitement as sports buildings bring to a city, they’re admittedly used on a less frequent basis,” Manica said. “They have challenges to be open and operational every day. 

“I am finding, and we are finding around the world, that these buildings are becoming part of a broader mixed-use building. That brings more value on event days and a better use of the land on non-event days.”

Manica designed the Chase Center, the Warriors’ new home in San Francisco, with an arena, 100,000 square feet of food retail space, two commercial office buildings, parking for almost 1,000 cars and 3.2 acres of plazas.

“I think you’ll continue to see the trend of large-scale sporting venues associated with other ancillary mixed-use developments,” Evans said. “That’s because they’re much more mutually beneficial to each other as it relates to creating a destination.”

The sight lines of new stadiums are designed to handle more than one sport. They have to.

“For an NFL building it means a lot more than designing it for NFL games,” Manica said. “It has to be multipurpose and serve a lot of different uses for the city and the owners of the building.”

SoFi Stadium has two tenants: the Chargers, who contributed a $200 million loan to the project and pay $1 per year in rent, and the Rams. It can’t host basketball yet — it’s technically open-air, though it could manufacture a temporary screen system —but it will host the 2028 Summer Olympics.

A decade from now, an Arlington Heights stadium could host everything from political conventions to concerts, from the Final Four to a bowl game, from wrestling bouts to international soccer matches.

• • •

The centerpiece of SoFi Stadium is its 360-foot, double-sided oculus video board that hangs over the field. At 2.2 million pounds, it’s so heavy that it anchors the sweeping roof in storms. Modern stadiums need to compete with our own cell phones; the oculus does that, and more.

“It needed to be more than just a place for replays,” Evans said.

The players don’t notice the oculus as much as they do what’s on the field. After the Bears opened their season at SoFi Stadium, tight end Cole Kmet — an Arlington Heights native — gushed over the grass and quality of the locker room.

“If you have that much land out in Arlington Heights,” he said then, “I can only imagine what they can do with that space.”

Thousands of Bears fans are wondering the same thing.

“These are some of the most complicated structures that any city can endeavor to build,” Manica said. “They’re also the buildings that bring people the most joy. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any building people like going to more than a stadium to see their teams play. Courthouses and shopping malls and movie theaters don’t get that kind of joy that stadiums do. 

“They become icons and hallmarks for the city. There’s an incredible amount of pride and joy wrapped up in these buildings.”

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