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SBJ/October 6 - 12, 2003/Facilities
After a quick build, showtime in Chicago
Published October 6, 2003
New Soldier Field made its debut under the lights last Monday night.
Late in the third quarter of opening night last Monday at renovated Soldier Field, a Chicago Bears fan lent his camera to an SMG employee so he could take a picture of the fan mopping up the mess created by water pipes leaking above the mezzanine concourse.
The snapshot summarized the glitches that occur when a new stadium opens after an abbreviated 20-month construction period with only one soft opening to fall back on. The "Meet Your Seat Day" two days earlier drew several thousand, far less than the sellout crowd of about 63,000 for the Bears-Green Bay Packers game.
Although that Saturday fan event gave Sportservice the opportunity to test its concession operation, officials acknowledged privately that it was not the optimal dry run for a new NFL facility. As scheduled, the construction team of Turner Barton Malow Kenny had turned the stadium over to SMG just nine hours earlier at 11:59 p.m. Friday.
At that point, the city of Chicago and the Bears finally had the opportunity to showcase the $606 million reincarnation of their 79-year-old venue, which had already drawn considerable criticism for the architectural design of its exterior. Critics used terms such as "toilet bowl" and a giant "spaceship" to describe the new structure rising out of the existing colonnades that are Soldier Field's trademark.
Granted, the exterior provides a sharp contrast when compared with the classic 19th-century architecture of the Field Museum next door. But the fact remains that what's inside Soldier Field is a dramatic improvement over what was widely considered to be the worst stadium in the NFL in terms of sight lines and fan amenities.
New Soldier Field, all curves and gleaming exterior, sits within the ring of the old structure.
Two-thirds of the seats at old Soldier Field were in the two end zones. The new configuration has 60 percent of the seats situated along the sidelines, with the highest seat 140 feet from the field. Overall, new stadium seating is 40 feet to 80 feet closer to the field, depending on location.
From the field, the wall of 133 suites (up from 116 at the old stadium) on the east side is an intimidating sight.
"The old skyboxes were attached to the colonnades on both sides. We opened the colonnades for public use and created a large separation between that and the suites," said Barnaby Dinges, project spokesman for the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority. "I compare the wall of suites to a lake monster, a giant wave coming out of Lake Michigan to haunt opposing teams."
Inside a suite, the glass wall angling toward the field gives the sensation of being suspended directly above the playing surface.
Those suites are only part of a new revenue tide for the Bears. For 30 years, the franchise did not receive any portion of concession and parking revenue. Now it controls all game-day receipts. The 133 suites, 8,657 club seats and the three-level, 47,000-square-foot Cadillac Club restaurant also financially benefit the Bears during the season. There were no club seats or upscale dining room at old Soldier Field.
Bears President Ted Phillips said: "We had dropped to 29th in the league in total revenues prior to this year, so the additional revenues have definitely made us more competitive. Based on our projections, we should be in the middle of the pack this year, not quite in the top quartile.
"Some teams don't pay rent, so it's tough for us to compete with that," Phillips said. "We pay the highest rent in the NFL at $5.7 million a year. How long it takes us to pay off our share of the debt [$200 million, including $100 million from the NFL] depends on our ability to sell out games and generate significant sponsorship revenue."
SMG Director of Operations Jay Boyle said the opening game's food, beverage and retail per cap was $22.05 from more than $1.3 million in sales. The concession per cap alone was $10.16. The retail per cap was $3.82. Those figures were based on announced attendance of 61,500. (With all suites filled, actual attendance can increase to 62,575). Boyle, employed with Aramark when it had the concessions at Soldier Field through 2001, put the numbers in perspective.
The colonnades, once attached to the skyboxes, are now open for public use.
"If the old building had a good night, we could hit the $625,000 we had Monday in straight concessions," he said, referring to his experience with Aramark. "But we've got all the other revenue streams that we never had before, such as the club seats and retail store," he said. Modern equipment was also a factor. "Before, we had to keep product warm with No. 10 cans of sterno. We used to have two grill stands. There are probably 20 now, all with hoods. The difference is like night and day."
Finding places to spend money in the new stadium was easy; just getting in proved more difficult for many of the Bears faithful on opening night. A half-hour before kickoff, peering three to four levels below at the narrow ramp leading up to the south end zone and west grandstand, one could see the crowd had stopped moving. With gridlock established, a few exasperated individuals reportedly yelled "E2!," referring to the downtown Chicago nightclub tragedy in February in which 21 people died, in large part because of overcrowded conditions.
Those fans eventually got to their seats safely. What they obviously didn't observe was that the grand staircase, maybe 150 to 200 feet from the ramp, was easily accessible except for a few stargazers lined along the railing to get a better view of Jim Belushi and the Sacred Hearts performing onstage below in a pregame concert.
Locally based architect Tony Montalto, part of the Wood & Zapata team that designed the stadium as its first sports venue project, said: "There was so much excitement just walking around exploring everything. At 7:30, all of a sudden, everyone wanted to get to the same place at the same time. Not understanding the building, they looked for the nearest source of vertical circulation."
To the credit of private management firm SMG and the Chicago Park District, which owns Soldier Field, the gates opened three hours before the game. General manager Tim Lefevour said crowd control personnel would do a better job of directing traffic flow the rest of the season. "It's ... easily correctable with ushers and security," he said. If future logjams occur, SMG may "shut off" the ramp to "slow the pace down" and "redirect people to the stairs."
Inside the stadium, hundreds of fans that bought food and drink opted to stand behind the lower seating sections on the mezzanine level. The view from standing there at midfield is 100 feet away from the game action, according to Montalto. Every once in a while, the Monterrey security redcoats would request that fans go back to their seats, but they weren't overly aggressive in their demands after people ignored their instructions. "Some of the best vantage points aren't seats," noted Dinges, adding that the closeness to the sidelines and the players provides a "heckler's paradise."
At some locations in the stadium, even strategically placed television monitors can't satisfy fans with obstructed views of the two 1,886-square-foot Daktronics scoreboards/video screens. The southwest corner midlevel is one example. The overhang from the upper grandstand blocks out the view of the north scoreboard/video screen. And although those seats are just to the left and below the south scoreboard, large support beams prevent a clear view of that unit. One fan seated there remarked that it was difficult to see the score on the TV monitor 20 feet in front of him.
The bright side was the lack of a line at the men's rest room immediately behind those seats. Lines 10 deep were evident for other men's bathrooms, while the women's units were relatively free of congestion. Standing in line, one male Bears fan recalled the facilities in the old venue, saying, "They should bring back the troughs."
Tenants: Chicago Bears, MLS Chicago Fire
Owner and operator: Chicago Park District
Architects: Wood & Zapata, Lohan Caprile Goettsch Architects, Ellerbe Becket
General contractors/construction manager: Turner Construction, Barton Malow, Kenny Construction/Hoffman Associates
No. of seats: Decreased to 61,500 from 66,944
No. of suites (price range): Added 17 suites, for 133 total ($70,000-$300,000)
No. of club seats (price range): Adding 8,657 club seats (none previously) ($195-$315 a game)
Projected cost: $606 million renovation
Funding: $200 million from the team, including $100 million from the NFL's stadium loan fund and $60 million from the expected sale of 27,500 PSLs (ranging from $765 to $8,500 each); balance from Illinois Sports Facilities Authority bonds to be repaid from annual collections of an existing 2 percent downtown Chicago hotel tax. The renovation is part of an overall improvement project for the city's Lake Michigan shorefront that will include 19 acres of new parkland, a 2,500-space underground parking garage and a veterans memorial.
Concessionaire: Sportservice (Aramark handled concessions before the renovation)
Pouring rights: Coca-Cola
Turf provider: SRI Sports
Seat provider: Camatic Seating Co., Staging Concepts Inc. (portable seating)
For a listing of stadium subcontractors at Soldier Field, click here.