On September 29, 2003, the much maligned "new stadium at"
Soldier Field will open with fanfare when the Chicago Bears host the Green Bay
Packers on Monday Night Football. Love the new stadium or hate it-and there are
plenty of denizens in each of those camps-Chicago will have its first new
football venue in its history. Those that feel the stadium looks strange should
know the story behind its creation is equally eccentric.
Soldier Field was built in 1924 as a public, multipurpose
sports venue, and was originally named Municipal Grant Park Stadium. Soon
thereafter, its name was changed to honor American military personnel that
fought in World War I. The building played host to a wide variety of sporting
events from its construction until 2001. Those events included the 1927
Dempsey-Tunney boxing match, ski-jump competitions, religious festivals,
concerts, world cup soccer, and 41 college football all-star games.
The Chicago Bears began playing their games full-time at
Wrigley Field (then known as Cubs Park) in 1921, and continued to play there
for 49 years. In 1970, the National Football League ruled that all teams must
play in stadiums that seated more than 50,000 fans, and the Bears were forced
to find a new home. After losing a bid to move to Northwestern University's
Dyche Stadium, the Bears' new den became Soldier Field on September 19, 1971.
To Bears' owner George Halas, Soldier Field was never
intended to be a permanent home. 47 years had taken its toll on the structure,
and no significant renovations were done for the team before it moved in.
Additionally, the stadium was designed for a plethora of different events but
was not perfect for professional football.
Though it was not lamented during the era of aging and
multipurpose baseball/football stadiums, Soldier Field's "sightlines" were
poor. Because the stadium's seating areas rose at a low pitch, fans were taken
farther away from the action as the seats rose. This configuration also
contributed to crowd noise leaving the stadium. These problems would linger
throughout the organization's search for a new home.
During the 1970s, after Halas announced the team would look
into building a stadium in suburban Arlington Heights, Chicago Mayor Richard
Daley stated the team would need to change their name to the "Arlington Heights
Bears," should they move to the suburbs. In his book Chicago's Cubs, author
Jonathan Alter captured the discussion:
"I think that's fine, George. You're a businessman. Do what
you have to do. By the way, our lawyers say you can't take the name Chicago
with you out there. We'd have to take you to court. That could take years. I
wonder how many people will come out to see The Arlington Heights Bears? I
wonder how excited the network people will be about broadcasting The Arlington
Heights Bears? You're a fine businessman, George. You make the call."
In 1978, the team and the Chicago Park District, which owned
and operated Soldier Field, reached an agreement. In exchange for a 20-year
lease from the Bears, Soldier Field would be renovated over the course of the
following three seasons. Individual seats replaced benches, the stadium was
reconfigured into a bowl from a horseshoe, and new skyboxes, press boxes,
concession areas and restrooms were constructed. These renovations were
completed prior to the 1982 season. Although the stadium was much more
functional than it was prior to these upgrades, terms of the lease agreement
would haunt the team and drive it along its path to finding an alternative to
the then-55 year old building.
Stadium peace lasted from the completion of Soldier Field
renovations through the Bears' remarkable 1985 Super Bowl run. Just a few years
after the new lease was signed, however, a new motivator for a redesigned Bears
stadium came into play. That force was the almighty dollar. During the late
1980's, teams that built skyboxes and negotiated leases which allowed them to
share concession, parking and advertising revenues found financial windfalls,
while teams that did not fell short. The Bears' lease with the Chicago Park
District gave them only a portion of the revenues from concessions, and none
from parking or signage within the stadium. As other teams maximized these
revenue streams, those without begged for renegotiations of leases or for new
Thus began a full 13 years of stadium talk in Chicago. In
1986, Chicago business organizations proposed building a new Bears stadium
south of Soldier Field, and in late 1989, Chicago heard its first utterance of
the word "McDome."
McDome was a proposal for a new domed Bears stadium, similar
in style to those built in Indianapolis, Minnesota and Detroit. (One of these
stadiums is now vacant, the other two have very unhappy tenants and visitors).
The dome was proposed to the Illinois Legislature as a part of the McCormick
Place expansion plan. Bears President Michael McCaskey aligned with Governor
Jim Edgar on the proposal, but the plan was rejected by the Illinois
Legislature in late 1990. Although it's safe to say the vast majority of Bears
fans were relieved to learn the team would not be playing indoors, McCaskey was
disappointed, and for the first time indicated that the organization would
consider all alternatives, including relocation, to acquire a new stadium.
1991-1994 was quiet on the new stadium/relocation front,
although Daley did propose further renovations, including installation of a
jumbo video scoreboard, in 1992. In exchange, the team would need to sign a
lease extension. The proposed renovations were pulled off the table by Daley
after the firing of Mike Ditka on January 5, 1993.
In 1995, the Bears organization, led by McCaskey, came out
firing. McCaskey announced that the team planned on beginning the 2000 season
in a new stadium at any cost. "If time slips away on this, we'll have to
consider other alternatives," McCaskey said as he imposed a deadline at the end
of 1995 to come to resolution on the issue. The team president didn't wait long
to make his first announcement. Early that year, the Bears purchased options on
land in suburban Hoffman Estates and Aurora, and proposed that a $285 million
open-air stadium be constructed. That figure would require $185 million in
public funds; the issue would never be brought to the legislature for a vote.
In a more striking development, McCaskey announced in
September of that year that he and a group of Northwest Indiana developers had
come to an agreement to build an entertainment complex called "Planet Park,"
which would include a new Bears stadium, in Gary, IN. A month later, Daley
responded to the Bears with an offer to spend $156 million to completely
renovate Soldier Field. The construction would be completed during the
offseason in 1998, would drop the field 18 feet and create an upper deck, add
skyboxes, a scoreboard and an exclusive restaurant. While McCaskey called the
proposal a "more thorough plan than we expected," he also stated that he
"didn't think renovating Soldier Field will be the answer."
McCaskey missed his self-imposed deadline at the end of 1995
for having a new stadium plan in place. In December he dismissed Daley's
stadium proposal, asked Edgar to reconsider the McDome plan, and kept the Gary
site as his trump card. Speaking of the Gary plan, the developers had asked the
team to sign a letter of intent on the deal by mid-February 1996 prior to them
placing a Lake County, IN tax increase on that year's ballot.
On February 2, 1996, the Lake County Council rejected the
plan, and "Planet Park" was dead.
Perhaps the most grandiose plan for a Bears stadium was
proposed in September, 1996, when Daley unveiled a $395 million proposal to
refurbish the existing stadium and equip it with a retractable roof. The
translucent roof would cover the north end zone seats and could be closed in 10
minutes. Although Daley's latest plan would satisfy Edgar's desire for a
multipurpose facility and the Bears' want for an open air-stadium, it was
ultimately rejected for not addressing the field's other flaws, such as
In 1998, Daley suggested that the Bears share Comiskey Park
with the White Sox. Concurrently, the team was working on another project.
During that year, McCaskey signed an agreement with Alan Busse on an option to
purchase 69 acres of his land near Elk Grove Village, IL. The move would prove
to be McCaskey's swan song on the stadium matter.
The team president's plan was to build a 68,000 seat outdoor
stadium north of the village, and the majority of citizens in the community
were outraged. Several town meetings were held to voice the people's opposition
to the plan, and officials in the village planned to place a referendum on the
issue on the April, 1999 ballot. The referendum never was necessary, as the
team pulled the plug on its latest project in January 1999. Little did anyone
know that the political landscape for a new Bears stadium was about to change
January and February 1999 would prove to generate the most
Bears news since the 1985 Super Bowl season. Head Coach Dave Wannstedt was
dismissed on December 28th, and a flurry of new coaching prospects visited
Halas Hall during the first three weeks of January. On the 22nd, McCaskey
called a news conference to announce former Bear LB coach Dave McGinnis had
accepted the Bears' head coaching position before he offered the job to him. On
February 2nd, Walter Payton disclosed that he had a liver disease that would
eventually take his life, and on February 10th, Virginia McCaskey announced
that she was replacing her son Michael as CEO with team VP Ted Phillips.
Phillips, long designated the "point man" by Michael
McCaskey on stadium issues, would finally get the stadium job done, most
thought. In March, the new team president signed a five-year lease extension at
Soldier Field, and declared that the Bears should always play within Chicago's
city limits. Such talk was refreshing to the city, considering McCaskey's
penchant for referring to the option of "relocation" over the previous five
years. In May 1999, talk began to surface that the City of Chicago and the
Bears were discussing a plan to raze all but Soldier Field's columns, and build
an entirely new stadium within. In August 2000, word had it that a $500 million
renovation plan was close.
And on November 22, 2000, the City of Chicago and the
Chicago Bears formally unveiled their plan for the new stadium at Soldier
Field. The $587 million plan would build the new 61,500 seat stadium within the
shell of the old venue, preserving the historic colonnades and exterior walls.
Included in the plan were the creation of parkland surrounding the stadium, a
new parking garage to the north, and numerous modern amenities within. More
importantly for the team, the new facility would generate much more income,
with the organization finally getting the majority of revenue from advertising,
parking, concessions, and luxury box leases. The proposal quickly gained
legislative approval in December 2000, and despite numerous lawsuits,
construction began immediately following the team's playoff loss in January
Amid scathing criticism of the stadium's appearance, the new
structure will open on September 29, 2003 as the Bears host the Green Bay
Packers on Monday Night Football.
As long as the new stadium will stand on the shore of Lake
Michigan, its detractors will call it the "mistake by the lake." Those who make
use of the stadium to watch their favorite football team play will be overjoyed
at the modern amenities which Chicago lacked through the 20th century. From
Halas and Richard Daley Sr., through Ted Phillips and Daley Jr., and after the
many, many days when it seemed it would never get done, on September 29th,
Chicago will have its 21st century icon at last.