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Nothing short of new stadium along the lake will keep Bears in Chicago, consultant says

Chicagoan Marc Ganis has advised numerous NFL teams on their stadium financing and has closely followed the Bears’ stadium saga for decades, including past team flirtations with Hoffman Estates and Gary, Indiana.

A view of the Soldier Field, which first opened in 1924 and was named in honor of World War I veterans is seen Friday, Sept. 24, 2004, in Chicago.
The last renovation of Soldier Field, finished in 2003, essentially put a new seating bowl within the walls of the original 1924 stadium. It was enough to keep the Bears in Chicago — for awhile — but it also “was economically obsolete before the concrete dried,” one prominent sports stadium consultant told the Sun-Times.
Associated Press

Nothing short of a new, preferably domed, stadium — either in parking lots next to Soldier Field or at McCormick Place East — will prevent the Bears from moving to Arlington Heights, a sports marketing expert said Thursday.

Chicagoan Marc Ganis has advised numerous NFL teams on their stadium financing. He has closely followed the Bears stadium saga for decades, including former team president Michael McCaskey’s flirtations with sites in Gary, Indiana, Hoffman Estates, the Near West Side and the ill-fated McDome project adjacent to McCormick Place.

Ganis said the “economics of the NFL” have “changed dramatically” in the two decades since Chicago chose what was then the political path of least resistance — renovating Soldier Field at a cost of $660 million — which won’t be paid off until 2032.

That’s why he believes the Bears’ bid for the Arlington International Racecourse property in Arlington Heights will be a prelude to building a new stadium there — unless Mayor Lori Lightfoot can find the public money and summon the political will to build a new stadium in Chicago.

Another renovation is not enough, Ganis said Thursday.

“Short of creating a domed type of project, which would be a new facility in that same general area with public sector support because of increased costs, I don’t see how there’s a long-term solution along the lakefront,” Ganis said.

“It wouldn’t really matter that much if the mayor said you could do naming rights. You could do gambling. And you can have more advertising. You can put in more events. The building itself was economically obsolete before the concrete dried.”

The Landmarks Preservation Council unveils new stadium design proposal as the city was pondering a massive Soldier Field renovation.
Among the ideas floated in the past for a new Bears stadium was this 2001 concept from the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois for a retractable-dome stadium on the parking lot just north of what is now Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the White Sox.
Sun-Times file

Ganis said Los Angeles Rams’ CEO Stan Kroenke recently took him on a tour of $5.5 billion SoFi Stadium.

“It’s spectacular. We’re not gonna build something like that here. But the Bears, for their future, need something significantly better. And it just isn’t gonna happen within the colonnades of Soldier Field,” he said.

Ganis said a stadium at the racecourse property would cost about $2 billion.

How could a team that’s essentially a McCaskey family business — exception for the 19.6% share owned by Patrick Ryan and Andy McKenna — afford that?

The league would provide “multiple hundreds of millions for a new stadium. And the Bears will sell seat licenses. In L.A., the Rams’ seat licenses generated over $600 million,” Ganis said.

“And then, you’ve got all of the revenue streams you don’t have at Soldier Field with a stadium that’s designed to maximize revenue streams along with other events that may take place. And real estate development that makes sense to take place around the stadium as they’re doing in L.A. and in other markets.”

Earlier this week, Lightfoot said will work with the Bears to expand and improve Soldier Field and maximize year-round revenues, but in a “fiscally-prudent way that doesn’t preclude other uses.”

The Bears opened their renovated Soldier Field with a game against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 29, 2003.
The Bears opened their renovated Soldier Field with a game against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 29, 2003.
AFP/Getty Images

But two architects who worked on the renovation and a structural engineer familiar with the project told the Sun-Times the mayor’s hands may be tied by the constraints of the existing structure.

Chicago architects Dirk Lohan and Adrian Smith said the current 61,500 capacity — the NFL’s smallest — can be expanded only a little, and only in the end zones. A retractable roof would be difficult, requiring a new support structure.

Ganis already has moved on to considering possible lakefront sites for a new stadium.

Besides the parking lots, “they’re still trying to figure out what to do with the McCormick Place [East] building that’s almost never used. So there is land there to do it. But whether there’s a desire to is another question,” he said.

Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, along the east side of Lake Shore Drive.
McCormick Place East (center front), also known as the Lakeside Center, is the oldest and least-used part of the convention center. It’s a logical site for a new Bears stadium to replace nearby Soldier Field (far right), said sports consultant Marc Ganis.
Sun-Times file

Stadium “choices” and mistakes made decades ago have tied the city’s hands and limited the mayor’s options, Ganis said.

“So if you’re asking me, as a person who’s worked on so many of these deals, ‘Is there a viable, advantageous way to extend the term at Soldier Field?,’ my response would be, ‘Not really.’ ... Is there an opportunity to increase those odds to keep the team within that general area? Yes, but that would entail doing something that was proposed decades ago and shelved,” he said.

Bears spokesman Scott Hagel could not be reached for comment. The mayor’s office had no immediate comment. Asked about Lakeside Center as a stadium site, Cynthia McCafferty, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns McCormick Place, said: “Any decision of that nature would have to be made by our board of directors.”

Ganis said the only other lakefront site that makes sense is the old U.S. Steel South Works site — a long haul for the Bears’ fan base.

“Arlington Park is an excellent site for the future of the Bears. It fits their ticket demographics,” he said.

“It fits for the access — both by mass transit and by roads. ... And it’s available. That, in and of itself, is not an insignificant matter. And it’s used to having tens of thousands of people go to that site on a regular basis.”