Emanuel mulling 5,000-seat expansion to Soldier Field

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The Chicago Park District is exploring the possibility of expanding Soldier Field by 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. 

“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.

“I know everybody looks at the Super Bowl. But, look at this hockey event [between the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins], which we started last year 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 it’s too soon to say how much the expansion would cost or how it would be financed.

He would only say, “That’s why we call it exploring. Not we decided. Everything I do in every department is about exploring and asking, `Can we do something better?’.… [Park District Supt. Michael Kelly] brought this up and I said, `Keep asking questions. Keep looking at it.’ “

Kelly said he approached Bears President Ted Phillips about the idea of expanding Soldier Field “about five minutes” after Emanuel pitched the idea of a Chicago Super Bowl to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell weeks after hosting the 2012 NATO Summit. 

The Park District and the Bears have had a series of meetings since then about a jointly-financed  expansion that would add 5,000 seats to the stadium’s top ring similar to the seamless expansion at Notre Dame stadium in South Bend, Kelly said.

“We’re always trying to generate more money out of the building — not only for the Bears, but for the dozen events that we throw like the hockey game Saturday. We sold out within 23 hours,” Kelly said of the Stadium Classic that drew 62,291 fans to Soldier Field on a snowy night with temperatures in the teens.

“It’s the smallest stadium in the NFL and there’s no shortage of Bears fans out there and season ticket wannabes who would like to get in that stadium. For us, rarely do we fill that stadium up with a concert, U2 or Bon Jovi being the exception. But, it would have been nice to have 5,000 more seats for the hockey game.”

Why not add the 8,500 seats needed to reach the NFL’s 70,000-seat Super Bowl minimum and meet ticket commitments from the NFL and conference champions to corporate, network and other stakeholders?

“We’re very limited with our capacity,” Kelly said. “We can’t go any lower, either. Some stadiums have dug down. We can’t do that. We’re gonna try to squeeze as many seats as we can in. But, we’re still very preliminary in discussions with the Bears on both engineering and architectural studies.”

Pressed on how the expansion would be financed, Kelly said, “That would have to be a partnership with the Bears and the Park District. … Ted [Phillips] and I have spoken on it several times. … It’s something always on our mind because we’re both trying to partner and generate more revenue out of the building.”

The $587 million renovation of Soldier Field was a public-private partnership between the Bears and the Park District. The team contributed $200 million generated by personal seat licenses (PSL’s) and proceeds from an NFL loan. The city’s $387 million share came from hotel tax revenues.

Bears spokesman Scott Hagel was tight-lipped when asked whether the team would be willing to similarly foot one-third of the cost of a 5,000 seat expansion at Soldier Field.

He would only say the Bears “communicate regularly with the Park District on ways to improve Soldier Field and the fan experience there and, “If it makes sense to add seats, we’d certainly be open to the idea.”

In 2001, then Mayor Richard M. Daley pressured the Bears to soften the design of the new Soldier Field by lopping off 1,500 seats on the west side of the stadium.

At the time, a heated civic debate was raging about the lakefront site and the bizarre stadium design. And the National Park Service was threatening to strip Soldier Field of its national landmark status because of a seating bowl that resembled a flying saucer and towered over the stadium’s historic colonnades.

The 11th-hour change reduced the seating capacity of the redesigned stadium to 61,500 seats, the lowest of the new NFL stadiums. It cost the Bears $400,000 in annual revenue.

Still Friends of the Parks and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois were not appeased.

Throughout the contentious public debate, stadium architect Dirk Lohan argued that the need for improved sight lines and more sideline seats dictated that the seating bowl rise 45 feet above the columns on the west side of Soldier Field and 30 feet above glass-enclosed skyboxes on the east side.

In June, 2012, Emanuel used a private meeting with Goodell to pitch the long-shot idea of Chicago playing host to a Super Bowl at Soldier Field.

“Why [not] Chicago? Just two weeks ago, [we] had a bunch of world leaders here. Sixth-largest NATO summit. And if we can do that, it would be an appropriate place to have a Super Bowl,” the mayor said then.

At the time, Goodell said he would wait and see how MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.—with a seating capacity of 82,566 — did as host of the 2014 Super Bowl, the NFL’s first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather city. 

Despite the brutal winter, the Seattle Seahawks beat the San Francisco 49ers in clear weather and record warm temperatures on the day before another snowstorm hit the New York area.

During that June, 2012 Soldier Field news conference with Emanuel, Goodell acknowledged that ”capacity is always an issue” in choosing a Super Bowl site.

But he said the number of fans who could be jammed into Soldier Field — and the number of tickets sold — was not the most important issue.

”The most important thing is having a great stadium and having a city that can have the infrastructure to host the hundreds of thousands of people that come in,” Goodell said.

”We estimate that probably 150,000 people come in for a Super Bowl. Obviously, not everybody can get into the stadium. But they want to be part of the event. And we know the great passion for football here in Chicago, and it’s one of the things we’ll look at if there’s an interest here in hosting it.”

NFL owners, who vote on Super Bowl sites, have been reluctant to approve northern cities with open-air stadiums. The Washington Redskins, for instance, failed in their bid, despite having an ideal locale and an open-air stadium.

NFL owners and sponsors prefer warm-weather sites, with the rotation including Miami, Phoenix and New Orleans. Cities outside the rotation, such as Minneapolis and potentially Atlanta, could be in line before other potential suitors not based in warm-weather climates.

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