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The Chicago Park District is exploring the possibility of expanding Soldier Field by 5,000 seats to bolster Mayor Rahm Emanuel's long-shot bid to host the Super Bowl and, more importantly, to increase seating capacity for other revenue-generating events.
"We are fighting below our weight class. That's the way I would look at it. We capped ourselves" with a capacity of 61,500 for football and 63,500 for other events, Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times.
"I know everybody looks at the Super Bowl. But, look at this hockey event [between the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins], which we started last year with college hockey. You look at two years ago when we had the Mexican soccer team here. We have Liverpool coming. These things not only sell out, they sell out fast. And it's clear that you could do more given these super events, and they would be self-financing and self-sustaining."
Emanuel said it's too soon to say how much the expansion would cost or how it would be financed.
He would only say, "That's why we call it 'exploring,' not 'we decided.' Everything I do in every department is about exploring and asking, 'Can we do something better?' . . . [Park District Supt. Michael Kelly] brought this up and I said, 'Keep asking questions. Keep looking at it.'"
Kelly said he approached Bears President Ted Phillips about expanding Soldier Field "about five minutes" after Emanuel pitched the idea of a Chicago Super Bowl to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell weeks after hosting the 2012 NATO Summit.
The Park District and the Bears have had a series of meetings since then about a jointly financed expansion that would add 5,000 seats to the stadium's top ring similar to the seamless expansion at Notre Dame stadium in South Bend, Ind., Kelly said.
"We're always trying to generate more money out of the building - not only for the Bears, but for the dozen events that we throw, like the hockey game Saturday. We sold out within 23 hours," Kelly said of the Stadium Classic that drew 62,291 fans to Soldier Field on a snowy night with temperatures in the teens.
"It's the smallest stadium in the NFL, and there's no shortage of Bears fans out there and season ticket wannabes who would like to get in that stadium. For us, rarely do we fill that stadium up with a concert, U2 or Bon Jovi being the exception. But, it would have been nice to have 5,000 more seats for the hockey game."
Why not add the 8,500 seats needed to reach the NFL's 70,000-seat Super Bowl minimum and meet ticket commitments from the NFL and conference champions to corporate, network and other stakeholders?
"We're very limited with our capacity," Kelly said. "We can't go any lower, either. Some stadiums have dug down. We can't do that. We're gonna try to squeeze as many seats as we can in. But, we're still very preliminary in discussions with the Bears on both engineering and architectural studies."
Pressed on how the expansion would be financed, Kelly said, "That would have to be a partnership with the Bears and the Park District. . . . Ted [Phillips] and I have spoken on it several times."
The $587 million renovation of Soldier Field was a public-private partnership between the Bears and the Park District. The team contributed $200 million generated by personal seat licenses (PSL's) and proceeds from an NFL loan. The city's $387 million share came from hotel tax revenues.
Bears spokesman Scott Hagel was tight-lipped when asked whether the team would be willing to similarly foot one-third of the cost of a 5,000 seat expansion at Soldier Field.
He would only say the Bears "communicate regularly with the Park District on ways to improve Soldier Field and the fan experience there and, "If it makes sense to add seats, we'd certainly be open to the idea."
In 2001, then Mayor Richard M. Daley pressured the Bears to soften the design of the new Soldier Field by lopping off 1,500 seats on the west side of the stadium.