Looking Into The Soldier Field Lease for Chicago Fire

Fire’s lease at Soldier Field calls for sliding payment based on attendance

MIAMI, Fla. (January 27, 2020) —

The Fire will play its 2020 home opener at Solder Field on March 21, facing the visiting Atlanta United FC. The Fire reportedly agreed to pay the Village of Bridgeview about $65 million to break their lease at SeatGeek Stadium, in a structured payment schedule.

Lease Particulars

The commercial facilities lease spells out that amount that the franchise will pay the Chicago Park District to play at Soldier Field depends on the team’s popularity. Specifically, the team’s lease with the Park District calls for sliding payment scales based on attendance.

Term of the Lease

The initial portion of the lease is three years, with a series of options–including two for three-year extensions, plus a pair of one-year extensions. In total, there is a potential for up to eight years beyond the initial three-year term.

Attendance-Driven Per Game Payment Scale

The amount the Fire must pay per game is defined as “operating expenses.” The minimum per game is $145,000 for games with 15,000 attendees or fewer. The fee rises based on attendance: $162,500 for up to 20,000; $176,500 for up to 25,000; $201,875 for up to 35,000 and $253,000 for any crowd larger than 35,000.

Per Game “Use Fee.”

For every game played by the Fire at Soldier Field, the club must tender to the Park District a per-game “use fee” of $10,000.

Rent Escalation Clause

The fees contained in the lease agreement will rise by 3 percent per year over the life of the lease.

Ticket Prices and Related Fees

The Fire retain the right to set their own ticket prices, but they will include fees to be tendered to the Park District.

Each ticket will carry a $4 charge denominated as a “facility fee.” For larger crowds, defined as crowds in excess of 25,000, a “capital improvement” fee will range from $1 per ticket for crowds larger than 25,000 to $3 for crowds larger than 35,000.

Performance Guaranty

The Fire were required to post an irrevocable letter of credit with a major financial institution in an amount that represents the operating expenses and use fees they paid for their final season in Bridgeview. That amount was $2.635 million. The use of an irrevocable letter of credit (widely used in international business transactions) will to allow the Chicago Park District to draw on the letter of credit in order to recoup its damages in the event that the Fire breach the lease agreement.

Retention of Parking Revenues

The lease agreement provides the team a substantial cut of revenue from parking fees. For parking, the lease sets the per-vehicle rate of $35 — it will be higher for premium ticket holders.

The parking fees can be adjusted each year at the Park District’s discretion. The Fire are to receive 60 percent of parking revenue for crowds of 10,000 or less. The team’s share will gradually fall to 50 percent for larger crowds (> 25,000).

Concessions F&B , Merchandise Sales Revenue To Accrue To Fire

The same percentage distribution applies to the Fire’s cut of food and beverage money and merchandise sold at the stadium.

Scheduling Priority and Conflicts

The Fire go from being the primary tenant in Bridgeview to being a secondary tenant in Chicago. The Chicago Bears of the NFL (American Football) are the primary tenant and have a five-day scheduling window, meaning that the Fire cannot play a game at Soldier Field that falls on a date that is less than five days from a Bears’ home game. The Fire can host games one day after Bears games. The Fire also do not have scheduling priority ahead of any event that had been agreed upon before Sept. 5, 2018.

The agreement states that from March 1 until the beginning of the NFL preseason, (generally in August), the Park District will attempt to keep two Friday-Sunday windows and five midweek dates open per month.

The NFL and MLS have different calendars, which means the Fire schedule could change after the Bears’ release their 2020 calendar, which comes out in April. Once it receives the Bears’ schedule in the spring, the Park District has five days to share it with the Fire. If there is a conflict, the Park District is compelled to help the Fire find a suitable replacement date. If a suitable date cannot be found, the Fire can reschedule at another venue.

As for potential postseason games for the Chicago Fire (which would be in October-November), the lease recognises the “inherent uncertainty” of scheduling those matches.

Playing Surface

At the beginning of the MLS season the Park District is responsible for making sure the grass field is in a suitable condition to host a match. The Park District will pay for a full resod of the field one time either before or during the Fire season, and any additional full or partial resod will be at the Fire’s expense. The Bears also can request resoddings.

Special Clause: Honouring Schweinsteiger?

A clause grants the Fire a chance to hold a “friendly farewell game” in connection with the retirement of Bastian Schweinsteiger, who is mentioned by name. No date has been set, nor is an opponent for any potential event specified. If the match comes to pass, Schweinsteiger’s former club Bayern Munich would be an obvious candidate to serve as the opponent.

Photo: Chicago Sun-Times

The Park District issued this statement: “The agreement between the Chicago Park District and Chicago Fire is financially sound and beneficial for both parties. The District utilized the expertise of its management, the Soldier Field management team and outside counsel to develop the terms.”

In July 2019, team president and general manager Nelson Rodriguez said that a while move to Soldier Field wouldn’t heal all issues for the Fire, its location presented some clear advantages for the club and its fans.

“I do think the location of the venue matters, and it’s been challenging to get [to SeatGeek Stadium] for many fans,” he said at the time, adding, “we do not believe that moving to the city is a salve for all our issues. We have to do a better job of connecting to people where they live.”

Chicago Fire Announce Return To Downtown Chicago; Sign La Liga Player

The Chicago Fire will return to Soldier Field.

MIAMI, Fla. (October 25, 2019) —

The club announced its return to the iconic downtown stadium, where their home opener will be versus Atlanta United on March 21, 2020. As earlier reported on Russo Soccer, the plans have been known for months, but the Fire waited to announce the official news on the anniversary of the club’s establishment in 1997.

In an open letter to The Chicago Suntimes Fire owner Joe Mansueto wrote: “On this anniversary of both the Great Chicago Fire and the founding of our team, it is my pledge to deliver a world class club worthy of our city and one that represents all of Chicago – our neighborhoods, our people, our communities.” He added what has by now become a familiar theme about soccer uniting people, saying, “The game we love has a unique ability to unite us all – and when Chicago is united, we can accomplish anything. It is my honor to invite a new generation to stand with us, as we make our stand for you.”

The Fire previously played at Soldier Field from 1998-2001 and 2003-2005 before relocating to SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois, where they have played for the last 14 seasons.

The club did not qualify for the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs and have already seen veteran Bastian Schweinsteiger announce his retirement this offseason.

Moving back to Chicago is a logical and needed step to reconnect with the city. Bridgeview was hard to get to from the urban core of Chicago and few people made the effort.

There was some talk about rebranding the team away from the megapopular NBC TV show and away from the worst disaster in the city’s history. This author thinks that would be a good move, and the rebrand would not even have to be that dramatic to present a stronger, more positive image.

Chicago Sign Spanish Midfielder Álvaro Medran

In other Chicago Fire (the MLS club) news, in early October the Fire completed the signing of the 25-year-old Spanish midfielder. Medran had played the previous five seasons in LaLiga, making 91 appearances and scoring 11 times. He was developed in the Real Madrid youth academy and signed with Los Blancos for the 2014-15 season, making six appearances that season. He was part of the Real Madrid side that won the 2014 Club World Cup.

Medran eventually played for Getafe, Valencia, Deportivo Alavés and spent last season with Rayo Vallecano. Medran was also capped three times for Spain’s U-19 team, and once for their U-21 team.

A free agent, Medran was signed using Targeted Allocation Money (“TAM”) and his contract runs through 2021, followed by two club options. As is the case in MLS. the financial terms of his contract were not disclosed.

Coach Veljko Paunovic and the Fire have completed the signing of Alvaro Medran.
 Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago Fire and Village of Bridgeview Reach Agreement on Lease Buyout

Miami, Fla. June 4, 2019

The Chicago Fire will pay the Village of Bridgeview $60.5 million to break its SeatGeek Stadium lease, per a local report, paving the way for a move to Soldier Field in the short term — and a new home for the MLS team potentially down the road.

The Bridgeview Village Board unanimously agreed to the terms of a buyout of the lease yesterday, providing financial certainty to both the team and the village. Under the terms of the agreement, the Fire will pay $10 million upfront and the balance paid off over the next 15 years. In addition, the team will pay $5 million annually for the use of the stadium for practices. From the Des Plaines Valley News:

Mayor Steve Landek called the agreement “a fair deal for everybody.”

“We like to see the Fire unleash its potential out in the whole market. I think it’s good for the Fire. I think it’s good for Bridgeview. Most of all, it relieves any of our angst over the stadium debt.

“Sometimes, we live and die with the success of the Fire. If they have a good year, we have a good year. If they have a bad year, we all are suffering. This, I think, will be a good idea for everybody,” Landek said.

The agreement, according to Bridgeview officials, allows for SeatGeek Stadium debt to be paid off without the need for additional property taxes. In addition, there’s potentially more revenue down the road if the Fire develops a new stadium within 35 miles of SeatGeek Stadium.

For the Fire, the lease buyout frees the team to make both short-term and new long-term plans. Short term, the team is likely to commit to Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, until a new stadium is prepped. The former Michael Reese Hospital site on Lake Shore Drive, just south of McCormick Place, has been under city ownership since it was purchased as part of a failed bid for the 2016 Olympics. It has not been redeveloped thus far, but a new Fire stadium could be part of the solution. Chicago Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman, who is resigning from his post, mentioned a potential Fire stadium during an interview on Monday. However, he labeled it a “long-term idea” and cautioned that any future redevelopment of the site will be complex, likely requiring multiple uses. Sounds like the sort of large-scale development challenge MLS officials love.

The Fire has struggled at the gate in recent years. This season the Fire has drawn just 11,298 fans per match to date, last in the MLS.

Image courtesy Chicago Fire.

Chicago Fire Negotiating Stadium Lease Buyout And Possible Rebrand

Chicago Fire News:

Will There Be An Early Termination Of The Lease at SeatGeek Stadium?

According to the sports publication The Athletic, citing multiple sources with knowledge of the negotiations, Chicago Fire and Major League Soccer are in discussions with the Village of Bridgeview to arrive at an early termination of the lease with the municipality, thus allowing the team to move out of SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois.

The discussions began last year and are ongoing, and it is unclear what the potential price of the buyout would be.

Some details of the deal first emerged on social media via the Twitter account of a Fire fan, James Vlahakis. From 2013 to 2016, he worked as outside counsel for the Fire while at the firm Hinshaw and Culbertson LLP. His Twitter activity suggests that he is a passionate fan who is sometimes critical of the team’s management.

[Attorney Vlahakis is currently suing the team and president Nelson Rodriguez in an unrelated matter alleging assault, discrimination, conspiracy, and malicious prosecution.]

The Fire Soccer Club are currently in the fourteenth year of a stadium lease that was signed in 2005 and runs through the end of the 2036 season.  An agreement to buyout the lease would allow the Fire to relocate to Soldier Field in downtown Chicago.

The club refused to provide any details, telling The Athletic: “We don’t comment on social media speculation from individuals outside the organization.”

One source indicated that Chicago billionaire and Fire minority owner Joe Mansueto has been instrumental in these negotiations. It is always difficult to obtain any financial date from the respective clubs making up MLS, which is organized as a limited liability company. It is known however that Fire majority owner Andrew Hauptman sold a 49 percent ownership stake to Mansueto for an undisclosed amount in 2018.

Mansueto is an influential player in the Chicago commercial real estate arena, having bought the historic Wrigley Building in downtown Chicago for $255 million last year.

Further evidence of the team’s desire to leave Bridgeview comes from the fact that public records show the Fire have been active in dealings with the City of Chicago in recent months. For example, lobbyist filing data shows that, “Chicago Fire Soccer Holdings, LLC” paid three lobbyists from the firm Fletcher, O’Brien, Kasper & Nottage a total of $72,000 for activities between October 1, 2018 and December 31, 2018, seeking administrative action from the mayor’s office regarding “real estate matters.” 

The Fire also declined to comment on the lobbyist activity. 

Bridgeview, Illinois And The Lease

The Village of Bridgeview is located some 24 kilometres (15 miles) outside of the downtown Chicago area, and depending on the time of day and where one is coming from, can be difficult to access. Google Maps, SeatGeek Stadium/@41.831867,-87.8385522.

For this reason, escaping from the lease at SeatGeek Stadium would be an important boost in the team’s ability to reach new fans. The Fire’s stadium in Bridgeview is also not easily accessed via public transportation — it requires a train ride to Midway Airport followed by a bus ride from the airport to the stadium, a commute that takes over an hour from the city. It is also a traffic-filled 45-minute drive from most places in the city.

MLS is a party to the stadium lease, a practice that was commonplace with third-party leases in the early days of MLS, but is no longer a regular practice. Rumours circulated that other league owners will be contributing toward the buyout of the SeatGeek Stadium lease, but league sources said there are no plans for other team owners to contribute. Three separate sources familiar with ownership discussions said no such arrangement has been presented to owners of other MLS teams, and that it would be unlikely other teams would agree to such a plan. 

In an interview with Sports Illustrated last month, MLS commissioner Don Garber hinted a move back to Soldier Field could be in the works for the Fire. The team played at Soldier Field from its inaugural season in 1998 through 2002, then again from 2003-06 after a brief hiatus during the NFL stadium’s renovations. SeatGeek Stadium opened midway through the 2006 season. 

“We were playing in Soldier Field and we ended up going into a stadium that is not downtown, does not have the things around it that many of our other urban parks do,” Garber said on the Planet Futbol podcast. “And if things could work out properly maybe we end up back at Soldier Field at some point.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber

But while moving into the city of Chicago would certainly help access a millennial demographic that has been vital to the growth of MLS around the country, it should not be considered a cure-all for a team that has struggled mightily on the field. The Fire have finished ninth or tenth in the Eastern Conference in four of the past five years, creating a mix of frustration and apathy even within its most diehard fanbase. And while the team has spent more on its on-field product, signing players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Nikolic, it lacks in several areas of infrastructure and support, including training grounds and a scouting network.

The lease with the Village of Bridgeview imposes a significant restriction, one which prohibits the Fire from playing any MLS home games outside of Bridgeview, without the express permission of the Village. According to two sources, MLS commissioner Don Garber flew to the Chicago area to meet with Bridgeview mayor Steven Landek ahead of the MLS All-Star Game announcement in 2017 in hopes of securing a Chicago Fire regular season match at Soldier Field during that season. League officials held off on an announcement that the All-Star game would be held at Soldier Field in order to pair that announcement with the Fire game, and team and league officials were optimistic a deal had been struck. In the end, however, Bridgeview declined to allow the game.

Chicago-Fire-Default-2

Possible Rebrand Also In The Works?

“We’re still in that process, and I think refresh is the word we like.”

Nelson Rodriguez, Fire GM

Multiple sources confirmed meetings have also been held regarding a potential team rebranding, though no decision has been finalized on whether that will include a new team name. Vlahakis’ tweet indicated that the Fire would rebrand as “Chicago City Football Club” as part of the move back downtown.

Fire general manager and president Nelson Rodriguez said on the record in a roundtable discussion with reporters last summer that the team has considered a brand “refresh.”chicago-fire-logo-png-chicago-fire-logo-vector-299

“We’re just still in that process, and I think refresh is the word we like,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not an overhaul, it’s not a major change. It’s an iconic badge. There’s a lot of great history at the club, a lot of great work from people that came before (COO John Urban) and I arrived, which we think should be honored. We will continue to honor that, but times change, there needs to be a little bit of an evolution and I think we need to hone in on what our voice is for today, and that’s what we’re working on.”

The Fire, which won MLS Cup in its inaugural season in 1998, holds a historic place in the league’s history. Conversely, the brand has almost no resonance in the city of Chicago, where game days are mere blips on the radar of most city residents and bigger media outlets in the market do not provide regular coverage. That lack of market penetration, paired with the dreadful management of a franchise that has made the playoffs just twice in the last nine seasons, has created a massive problem for the league as a whole. MLS, which is eyeing a new media rights deal in 2021, needs to remedy its lack of interest in the third-largest media market in the country.

A Fire rebrand would follow the model set by the MLS franchise in Kansas City, which rebranded from the “Kansas City Wizards” to “Sporting Kansas City” in 2010. That rebrand, paired with a new stadium opened in the summer of 2011, has been one of the success stories in MLS. That rebrand and new stadium, however, was buoyed by the consistent success of the team and charismatic coach and Sporting Director Peter Vermes, supported by a large infrastructure investment on the part of the investors owning the team. Kansas City’s MLS  franchise, which won an MLS Cup as the Wizards in 2000, stands out as one of the league’s few “original 10” teams that experience success in their home market.

Before And After:  Kansas City Rebrand

Kansas_City_WizardsSporting_Kansas_City_logo

 

 

 

 

Other MLS original clubs have struggled to keep pace with recent expansion teams, including two other teams that have rebranded: FC Dallas, originally the Dallas Burn, and the New York Red Bulls, originally the New York/New Jersey Metrostars. The Red Bulls, while a success on the field and with a top-class stadium, have not seen that translate in its attendance figures. Other MLS original franchises that are struggling to make a big impact within their market include the New England Revolution, Colorado Rapids and Columbus Crew. Columbus nearly relocated before being saved by new ownership, while Colorado and New England, like Chicago, have struggled in most seasons over the past decade; New England has just three playoff appearances since 2010, Colorado has four, and the Fire have just two.

Those on-field struggles have showed themselves at the gate. The Fire has an average announced attendance of 15,723 over the past nine seasons, and has averaged just 11,029 in three home games this season, the worst in MLS—just below Colorado and New England.

A chance to get back into the city could provide a jumpstart, but negotiations with Bridgeview have been tricky in the past. One source pointed to a recent example to show that no deal is done until the papers are signed.

Reviews of SeatGeek Stadium on Yelp