SBJ/November 23 - 29, 1998/No Topic Name

Soldier Field woes mount for Bears

Three consecutive lackluster seasons are beginning to punish the Chicago Bears. For the first time in recent history, the Bears are saddled with empty luxury suites, averaging about 13,000 no-shows per game and facing the possibility of breaking a 180-game consecutive sellout streak next month when the woeful Baltimore Ravens visit Soldier Field five days before Christmas.

All this comes from a franchise that until this season never had to spend a nickel on advertising. "We are taking a hit right now," said Bears marketing director Ken Valdiserri. "There's been some fallout, but that's what happens in a down cycle. It's kind of like the stock market."

At the team's Nov. 8 game against the St. Louis Rams, more than 16,000 fans stayed away from Soldier Field rather than watch the Bears lose. It was the highest number of no-shows the team has seen in years. It came even after the team made the unusual move of launching an advertising campaign.

The declining support comes on top of a 21 percent drop in attendance last year compared to 1996. The team, which has sold out every game since 1984, couldn't sell all 116 of its luxury boxes this season. Four luxury boxes are unsold, and two that are available on a game-by-game basis are also vacant, Valdiserri said.

The Bears have been forced to dip into their season-ticket waiting list, which now stands at about 8,000, down from 10,000 last year.

Valdiserri downplayed the financial impact of the declining fan interest, but the minimum price of the luxury suites is $60,000 per year.

The team's local radio network contract, valued at an estimated $5.5 million annually, is set to expire at the end of next year, and its value is also threatened by the Bears' troubles.

"We haven't been to the playoffs in a while, and it's starting to take its toll on fan interest," Valdiserri said. "It's the same thing that's going on in Washington and in Philadelphia, teams that are also having a down cycle. But to create some balance, we still have 95 percent [of the 116 luxury suites] sold out."

Looming even larger is the Bears' quest for a new stadium. Its lease at Soldier Field expires after the 2000 season, and the team needs all the leverage it can muster as it battles with city and state officials over financing issues.

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