Chicago Fire to pay $45m-plus to move from suburban soccer stadium to Soldier Field

The Chicago Fire, who for the past 13 years have played in a soccer-specific stadium in suburban Bridgeview that has been somewhat of a disaster for all concerned — attendance is meh, and the village of Bridgeview has taken a bath on the lease — have agreed to pay $65.5 million as part of a buyout so they can move to the Bears‘ Soldier Field starting next season, according to the Desplaines Valley News, “a household name in the southwest suburbs since 1913”:

The breakup, which had been hinted at for several years, became official Tuesday afternoon when the village board unanimously approved a Memo Of Understanding between the Fire and Bridgeview. The next step is formally amending the lease, which is expected.

Under the terms of the memo, the team would pay the village $60.5 million to escape its lease. That includes a $10 million payment upfront with the balance paid over the next 15 years, the village’s financial advisor Dan Denys told the board…

The Fire would also pay the village $5 million for the next five years for using the Bridgeview facilities for practice, Denys said.

Okay, that’s not really a $65 million buyout: The $5 million is rent on using the stadium as a practice field, and since $50.5 million of the actual buyout would be spread over 15 years, that’s a present value total of more like $45 million. (Which is a lot less than the previous buyout estimate of $125 million, though of course that was just an estimate.) Though the Fire owners have also reportedly promised to “make whole” SeatGeek if the move harms the value of the company’s naming rights deal on the Bridgeview stadium, which could add millions more to their cost. Plus we still don’t know what the Fire will pay the Chicago parks department (who if I’m reading the Bears’ lease right control Soldier Field on non-NFL days) to play in their new home.

All of which is interesting in that it shows how desperate the Fire are to get into a stadium that their fans can actually get to, but more to the point: An MLS team is choosing to move from a soccer-specific stadium to become a renter in somebody else’s NFL stadium did Don Garber just keel over and die or what? It’s been MLS gospel for years now that soccer-specific stadiums are a must, with the only exceptions allowed being for teams that at least play in a multisport stadium that they control; the Fire will apparently now be an exception to that rule. To every would-be expansion city being asked to build a new stadium for soccer when it already has another stadium that could be used — which is to say, all of them — this should set an example that it isn’t actually necessary; it may be nice for a team and its fans, but that doesn’t mean cities should be on the hook for paying for them because they’re told it’s the only possible way to have a successful team.

29 comments on “Chicago Fire to pay $45m-plus to move from suburban soccer stadium to Soldier Field

  1. Chicago Millionaire Joe Mansueto didn’t want to head to South Suburbs to view the games (if he in fact even watches the games), thus the move back to Chicago and access to public transportation.

    Like many, many, other instances of the public taxpayers paying for a sports stadium, this Bridgeview financial disaster of a stadium deal should be presented front and center everywhere where they are considering financing a stadium with taxpayer funds…of course, it would likely be ignored as the rationalization would be “it will be different here!!! Our deal is a benefit to the taxpayers!!”

  2. Come on Neil stay up to date on your Garberish! Garber’s “soccer specific stadium” thing is so four years ago. Now it’s a stadium in the “urban core”.

    You should start a pool for what comes next after half these “urban core” stadiums become half full. In guessing “can support an XFL team”.

  3. I am now wondering about other teams playing in cities hard to get to with a Big City stadium say 10 to 15 miles away. Oh say Chester to Philadelphia.

    New York then Atlanta now Chicago
    Ponzi League changing rules to get that Expansion fee

  4. Any info on how much debt is on the stadium and/or what the annual debt service is?

    • I think it’s $17.5 million a year, but they’ve refinanced bits of it so that may have changed.

      • But it only cost $100 million to build. How could the debt service be that high?

        • Because they funneled tons of money to connected people and refinanced parts of it several times.

  5. @neil — Why the snark on the motto of the local paper? Isn’t this the kind of local journalism that people you are claiming we need? Because we do need it.

    • The newspaper is great! (Or this one article seems fine, anyway — I haven’t read more.) The motto, though, is kind of sadly hilarious, along the lines of the product Paul Lukas once reviewed that proclaimed itself “America’s favorite banana milk.”

  6. Judging from the linked article, it looks as though the stadium was costing the general fund (or whatever Bridgeview calls it) somewhere around $5.5m annually for the first five years of operation. Details after that are sketchy, but it sounds like most of their borrowing was completed to cover current and future losses and possibly refinance some of the original debt (unknown).

    We can’t know what else the community has wasted it’s money on (a significant amount of money seems to have been directed into the pockets of local pols and their friends…), but it seems likely that the town is on the hook for $70-80m in losses & shortfalls covered to date with perhaps another $250m or so related to the stadium still outstanding.

    Do we know when the construction bond or other instruments will be retired? I am assuming not until 2035 or so…

    All this on a property tax base of $11m in 2011 (so maybe $17m today assuming a 6% or so avg annual property value increase).

    And the team is paying somewhere between $45-65m to terminate? That covers the next three years of payments due. What happens after that?

  7. Why does soccer need a specific stadium different from a standard American football stadium? Both sports are played on similar sized, rectangular grass fields. Change out the goals, reline the fields, and then just bring in a new crowd of spectators. So, what am I missing?

    • FIFA demands a wider field for international matches, though club matches are subject to the whims of the national football association and given that they allow NYCFC at the very least a waiver (that they show no signs of ever stopping) it’s pretty obvious that US Soccer doesn’t.

      The answer is money, just like it is with the NFL. Ideally, if we had to fund stadiums at all, they’d be Olympic-style stadiums that can host a ton of things and the teams would pay the same fee anyone else does to rent it.

      • I’m still not exactly sure why money makes SSS’s more desirable, though. Does controlling your own luxury suite revenue and naming-rights revenues, etc., plus maybe getting $50 million or so in public subsidies, really make up for the costs of constructing an entire new stadium?

        If anything, it seems like the soccer-specific craze has been driven more by Garber and the MLS central office, seemingly because having their own stadiums makes MLS seem more big-league, which I guess is good for marketing, or at least for suckering in new expansion owners who’ll pay $200 million to join an extremely non-exclusive club? Like so much about MLS finances, it’s hard to tell where the actual business plan leaves off and where the smoke and mirrors begins.

        • The in stadium fan experience was a bit more enjoyable in Bridgeview. Closer to the field. 14,000 fans meant 2/3 full, which seemed loud. Eventually the drive got to be a drag. And the team was kind of forgotten way out there. Soldier Field was nice too, because they don’t use the upper level of Soldier Field, and you don’t really see the 40,000 empty seats above you, so even 20,000 fans can seem like a good crowd. But they may just be trading problems. Soldier field has great Public Transport, but expensive parking. My guess, the Fire want to play a few games at Wrigley too. If they can (almost) fit college football there, they can get a soccer field in.

          • Before moving to Soldier Field full-time, the NASL Sting played at Wrigley and Comiskey. With an upper deck on all 4 sides, Comiskey was actually better than Wrigley. They’ve shrunken the field at Wrigley by adding seats in foul territory since then, but it still might work.

        • I think it’s revenue, but also the ability for MLS to say: “See, we ARE doing something to “build the sport” in America.” Plus, as you know, shiny new stadiums are fun toys for the very rich.

        • >Does controlling your own luxury suite revenue and naming-rights revenues, etc., plus maybe getting $50 million or so in public subsidies, really make up for the costs of constructing an entire new stadium?

          It does if someone else pays for it!

        • I think club control of their surrounding area, like for all new stadiums, is also super lucrative for revenue. Teams that share stadiums have to split parking revenue, plus forgo any future development opportunities at the site.

          Also, not for nothing, but having your own stadium site makes it easier to set up your own training facilities and academy and whatnot, which do seem to require more space for soccer than the other sports. RSL, for example, has their academy, USL stadium, and training facilities across the I-15 freeway from Rio Tinto in Herriman. They even moved Monarchs games from downtown SLC, where they had better attendance, down to be with the rest of the parent club. Although I’m betting now the owners are wishing they could have built Rio Tinto in downtown near Salt Lake Central Station when it was mostly a failed mall and homeless encampments when they had the chance.

    • San Jose used to play in a stadium that barely fit American football and you’d be surprised how much it alters the game.

      Hockey is a good comparison IMHO – the NHL plays on a much smaller rink than international hockey. Lot more physical, more collisions and less open-ice skating. Soccer is kind of the same way.

  8. Went to this stadium last summer – got 4x Seatgeek tickets for under $10/each. The announced crowd was 6000, but it was mid-week and the actual was more like 1000. The well publicized fight between the front office and supporters groups meant the latter boycotting, making the stadium super quiet – no atmosphere whatsoever.

    Truly a terrible gameday experience, Fire had no future there.

    • That’s consistent with what I’ve seen of attendance at Fire games at Bridgeview. I’ve no idea what the announced crowds were for the games I watched (online), but I could count the people in the stands behind the goals and far side.

      Even if the “main” stand held 3-4 times as many fans as all the others, it still wouldn’t have added up to more than 3500 fans tops.

      The problem with everyone saying “they have no future at Bridgeview” is that attendance was pretty lousy at Soldier field before Bridgeview was built, as I recall. I could post a link to their official all time attendance, but it is less realistic than GoT battle scenes, so…

      Not sure moving back there is the answer…

  9. Fire fan here with very mixed feeling about the move. It will be easier for me to get to Soldier Field, but SeatGeek really isn’t a bad place to watch soccer at all, and I hate that the people of Bridgeview have been getting hosed. This team drew a lot better out in Bridgeview when . .. guess what?!? . . .. they made the playoffs every year! But that was a loooooong time ago. A lot of my fellow Fire-o-philes think “moving to Soldier Field is the answer” to what ails the Fire. I am more of the mind that until the team actually starts investing in signing or developing better players . . . so you know, the team is better . . .the fan experience will suffer from lack of attendance.

  10. The Fire’s stadium sweepstakes probably won’t end when the team moves back into Soldier Field.

    The outgoing Commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development recently suggested that an ideal location for a new Fire stadium would be at the former Michael Reese Hospital site, a 49-acre mega-development named Burnham Lakefront, from Farpoint Development, about a mile south of Soldier Field. Farpoint has yet to announce any concrete plans, much less put shovel to dirt.

    Another mega-development in the city, this time on the north side, Sterling Bay’s 55-acre Lincoln Yards, just received approval from the city to start building, as well as receiving a very generous TIF subsidy.

    The development is broken into north (which will be developed first) and south halves. At one time Sterling Bay envisioned the construction of a soccer stadium on the south half, hoping to start a new USL team.

    More recent plans for the south half (issued long before the Fire announcement) saw the soccer stadium disappear, replaced by a largely undefined “entertainment district”.

    We’ll see if either developer bites. Stay tuned.

    • The TIF has not been voted on for Lincoln Yards as they are waiting for the new mayor Lori Lightfoot to be sworn in which is within one week. The Lincoln Yards sight originally had a proposal for a small soccer stadium 15,000-20,000 for a USL soccer team; however, the alderman nixed the proposal as the surrounding area is very dense and traffic is gridlock most of the time. The Michael Reese site would be an interesting choice; Metra electric has a station at 27th street and you couldn’t beat the view from the lakefront either.

      • Not to get too far into the weeds, but, in fact, the Chicago City Council did approve TIF money for Sterling Bay. The Lincoln Yards plan calls for 1.2 billion in TIF spending.

        The delay in the vote lasted two days, during which Lightfoot received assurances of more MBE/WBE construction contracts.

        You are correct that 2nd Ward Alderman Hopkins rejected the stadium proposal, but Lightfoot has hinted that, once in office, she may move to limit aldermanic prerogative, which gives someone like Hopkins far too much power in deciding whether projects in their own ward get approved or even severely altered.

  11. Ground-level Fire fan tells me this is an intermediary step to getting another, better soccer-only stadium closer to the heart of downtown.

  12. Before the Fire moved to Bridgeview they played at Soldier Field and also a couple of years at North Central College in Naperville before moving to their current home. Bridgeview is hard to get to. Almost zero public transportation options. I don’t know if Soldier Field is the right choice for them. If Guaranteed Rate field (New Comiskey) was available I think that would be a better option. The Fire left Soldier Field because of attendance; I don’t think they’ll draw more than 25,000-30,000 there and the rent will kill them. Of course, they would want to play at Wrigley Field. But availability and rent would be prohibitive. What the developers of the “78” land in the South Loop slated for redevelopment should do is propose a soccer-only stadium to the owners of the Chicago Fire. The “78” is land in the South Loop bordered by Roosevelt Rd on the North, Clark st on the east,16th st on the South, and the south branch of the Chicago River on the West. It has sat vacant since 1971 since it was last used as railroad yards for the C & O and B & O railroads.

    • Would rent on Soldier Field (or Wrigley) really be more than debt payments on building a new stadium?