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Naming rights, exploring a roof are Soldier Field’s top priorities, committee says

The 23-person Museum Campus committee organized by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot released its 51-page report Thursday, which includes numerous recommended changes to improve Soldier Field and the surrounding area.

Top priorities include seeking out a naming rights sponsorship for the stadium and exploring the feasibility of enclosing the stadium with a roof. They are listed as actions that should be explored within the next year.

These improvements – still only ideas at this point – are an effort to entice the Bears to remain at the historic Chicago stadium. The Bears have played at Soldier Field since 1971. They are currently exploring an opportunity to build a brand new stadium in suburban Arlington Heights at the former site of Arlington International Racecourse.

In September, the Bears agreed to a $197.2 million purchase agreement with Churchill Downs Inc., which currently owns the 326-acre Arlington Heights property. The Bears previously said a sale won’t become official until late 2022 or early 2023.

Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips said in January that the team’s “focus for long-term development is exclusively on that property in Arlington Park.”

Lightfoot has been critical of the Bears’ interest in Arlington Heights from the beginning. In a statement released more than a year ago, Lightfoot said the bid was “clearly a negotiating tactic” and told the Bears to “focus on putting a winning team on the field.”

Since then, the Arlington Heights bid has only become more serious. Lightfoot created the Museum Campus committee in February in an effort to reimagine Soldier Field and the surrounding area.

The committee wrote that “although enclosing Soldier Field would incur significant investment, further analysis is required to fully understand the specific costs, the potential direct and indirect economic impacts, and the full range of potential funding sources available to determine options that are respectful to Chicago taxpayers.”

Adding a roof to the stadium could provide more opportunities for concerts in the winter, as well as chances to host the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four. Chicago has never hosted either event.

For naming rights inspiration, the committee pointed toward New Orleans, where the Caesars Superdome was able to obtain a sponsorship and keep the original “Superdome” name in its title. Recent stadium naming rights deals such as SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas have garnered more than $400 million in value.

As far as the game day experience, the committee wrote that “updating the stadium’s current seating configuration is imperative.” The committee recommends exploring new stadium boxes and clubs, and diversifying the mix of available spaces. The report mentions more relaxed environments with couches and lounging areas. Many newer NFL stadiums have field-level suites with such relaxed environments.

“Additional conventional seating, therefore, should focus more on maintaining existing capacity rather than significantly increasing it,” the report states.

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The committee recommends expanding the stadium’s concourses, concessions, washrooms and retail areas. It notes that the Soldier Field concourse is “among the smallest in the NFL.”

Outside the stadium, the committee wants to explore returning Northerly Island to a nature area. That would make it necessary to move the Huntington Bank Pavilion concert venue. The committee recommends building a new outdoor concert venue on the grassy hill between Soldier Field and the Field Museum. The committee also wants to explore the potential for a Soldier Field visitors center or a Bears Hall of Fame, plus the possibility of including an in-person sports betting lounge.

“Our beloved Museum Campus is an essential part of this city and requires special attention and care,” Lightfoot said in a statement released Thursday. “The Museum Campus working group has provided us with a useful framework to guide that work, as well as to enhance the Campus overall. This report will also ensure our vision is aligned when it comes to creating a more enriching and rewarding Museum Campus experience for all who visit.”

The big question now is whether these potential changes are enough to keep the Bears in the city. The benefits of Arlington Heights could outweigh any changes to Soldier Field. The team could fully customize the entire Arlington Heights location, both the stadium and the surrounding area, plus it could own the stadium.

The team’s lease with Soldier Field runs through 2033, but the organization could pay a penalty to end the lease early.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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