SBJ/July 10 - 16, 2006/This Weeks News

Built for sports and showbiz

Take a look at Toyota Park’s permanent stage three hours before a Chicago Fire game and it appears the new $98 million MLS stadium has turned inside out.

What’s normally hidden from view backstage or in a private space is now front and center, where the night before, Mary J. Blige, Bow Wow and others performed for 20,000 fans.

Levy Restaurants employees wheel in carts of appetizers and set up bar tables as two-thirds of the stage is transformed into a VIP party for the likes of MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Anschutz Entertainment Group Sports President Shawn Hunter.

Comcast SportsNet broadcasters take up a small portion preparing for their pregame show. The stadium’s green grass and blue seats filling up with red-clad Fire fans serves as the backdrop when the broadcast begins.

Welcome to AEG’s world, where sports and entertainment properties collide.

The new stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., designed by Rossetti, takes its place alongside another MLS stadium built with a permanent stage that opened last year, Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas, operated by Hunt Sports Group and designed by HKS for FC Dallas. AEG’s live entertainment division, AEG Live, is the exclusive promoter there.

In Bridgeview, the stadium design and the team ownership combine to tighten the soccer-concert fit even more. Toyota Park, which AEG operates, can switch from a concert booked in-house through AEG Live to a soccer game featuring the AEG-owned Fire in about eight hours.

“Unlike most stadia, where you have to build a stage on the field, assemble it and take it down, turnover is very quick here between a concert and a Fire game,” said Jay Cooper, Toyota Park’s general manager.

The flexibility gives AEG and the Fire more opportunities to book concerts on prime revenue-producing weekend dates, even when the Fire is at home.

“We went 58 days last year at Soldier Field without a home game,” said John Guppy, Fire president. “There were two reasons for that: One was conflicts with the Bears; two was conflicts with concerts, the Rolling Stones being the big act they had last year.”

Guppy remains “confident that with the stage design, the worst-case scenario for us on a weekend is that there’s a concert on Saturday night and we get to play on a Sunday,” he said.

That was the case June 24-25, and the $1.7 million natural-grass field did not look any worse for wear after AEG set up 8,000 chairs for the concert on a Terraplas floor.

The multipurpose features don’t end with the stage. Toyota Park has three suites on each side of the stage that convert into dressing rooms and can be consolidated into bigger units.

The 42 other suites, which normally would be built on the west side facing away from the late-day sun, are on the east side, shaded from much of the glare by the tilted roof on the west. The move was dictated by the stadium’s urban environment: The east side’s exterior faces Harlem Avenue, a busy Chicago thoroughfare that cuts through Bridgeview.

The redbrick exterior and arched main entryway for employees and premium-seat holders fits into the heavily industrial area in the blue-collar southwest suburb, which owns the stadium.

“Because of the relationship to the community and the front door, we thought it would be more appropriate to have all of the identity, the iconic feeling, facing the street,” said Rossetti Chairman Gino Rossetti.

Toyota Park’s seating bowl provides one of American soccer’s most intimate settings, declared Tim Lambert, Rossetti’s principal-in-charge. The first row of regular seats sits 12 inches above the pitch. The suite holders are only 52 feet from the field.

The 1,104 club seats forming the middle three sections on the east side sold out about six weeks ago, Guppy said. Club seats are $1,200, sold in two-, four- and six-year terms, and include a ticket to 20 soccer events, admission to a 9,000-square-foot lounge and parking for every two club seats sold.

Club-seat holders receive first rights to buy tickets for concerts. The 2006 MLS All-Star Game on Aug. 5 at Toyota Park is another incremental buy.

“The music opportunity was the sweetener and helped them decide between making a commitment for a club seat or buying just a [$820] premier midfield season ticket,” Guppy said.

Thirty-six of the 40 suites available on the east side — AEG and the village each control one suite — are sold. Suites range from $33,500 to $60,000 annually and come with three-, five- and seven-year terms. Suite holders receive tickets to all stadium events and will be able to access a rooftop hospitality space once it is finished by the Aug. 5 All-Star Game.

The Fire sold two of its six stage suites for $25,000 for soccer only this season (the six suites are not available for concerts). AEG intended to sell the six suites for individual games until two companies expressed interest in leasing suites for the entire Fire season, said Christi Reynolds, Toyota Park’s director of marketing.

AEG and the Fire collect $2.8 million in premium-seat revenue annually, and share a percentage of profits with Bridgeview, Guppy said.

Anheuser-Busch, Bridgeview Bank, McDonald’s, Pepsi and Performance Physical Therapy are the team’s biggest sponsors. The Fire is seeking three to five more primary sponsorships, including in the telecommunications and home improvement categories, Guppy said.

A-B bought the rights to sponsor a party deck near the stage that is still being developed but had a few patrons watching the game, perched on Budweiser logo bar stools. The space can accommodate 75 people. A-B and AEG and the Fire share the hospitality space.

Toyota acquired the stadium naming rights for a reported $7.5 million over 10 years and showcases two of its vehicles atop the stage-end suites, and can mix and match the models depending on the event.

The automaker is also prominently featured on two LED ribbon boards and has its name above the archway in front of the building. Toyota will have other signs in place by the All-Star Game.

The Daktronics video scoreboard is suspended above the stage and can be removed for concerts. McDonald’s sponsors the game clock, and on this June night a giant inflatable set of golden arches sat tethered at stage right, reminding everyone that McDonald’s, whose corporate headquarters is 11 miles away, owns the stage’s branding rights.

Advertising is otherwise understated. Vertical banners hang on posts outside the building. Lightweight and transparent ad panels installed on the east side are also visible from the parking lot and can bend in the unforgiving Chicago winds.

“We took the clean approach,” Guppy said.

The same is true for the concession stands. Connie’s Pizza, a Chicago sports venue staple, did not have a sign at its east concourse location, but that’s expected to change. A few Fire fans managed to find the pizza anyway.

Most patrons of legal drinking age had no trouble locating the colorful Corona carts and weren’t bashful about forking over $9 for a 24-ounce beer.

“We were worried about [the price], but they had the longest lines,” Cooper said.

Toyota Park

  • Team: Chicago Fire
  • Owner: Village of Bridgeview, Ill.
  • Operator: Anschutz Entertainment Group
  • Cost: $98 million
  • Financing: $155 million in bonds issued by village of Bridgeview
  • Architect: Rossetti
  • Construction Manager: Turner Construction
  • Fixed Seats: 20,000
  • Suites: 48
  • Club Seats: 1,104
  • Naming Rights: Toyota, 10-year deal
  • Concessions: Levy Restaurants
  • Scoreboard: Daktronics
  • Primary Sponsors: Anheuser-Busch, Bridgeview Bank, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Performance
    Physical Therapy
Ardmore Associates Owner’s representative
Icon Venue Group Operator’s representative
John A. Martin & Associates Structural engineer
Jacobs/Ryan Associates Landscape architect
A. Epstein & Sons International MEP and civil engineer
Millennium Sports Technologies Turf consultant
FP&C Code consultant
STS Consultants Geotechnical engineer
Duray/JF Duncan Industries Food service consultant
Acoustic Dimensions Audio, visual, telecom consultant

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