Dear Rahm Emanuel: Put down the jackhammer and step away from the football field.
The mayor of Chicago is reportedly mulling expanding Soldier Field with his eye on a bid to host the Super Bowl in 2019. The Chicago Tribune reports that Emanuel is in the "very preliminary stages" of exploring a 5,000-seat expansion.
This, in no uncertain terms, is a terrible idea. For one, the math simply doesn't add up: The NFL usually requires a Super Bowl stadium to seat at least 70,000, and Soldier Field currently has a capacity of 61,500. Even with the expansion, it would be 3,500 seats short of the league's preferred minimum. "We'll work with that footprint," Emanuel said last month in typically stubborn Emanuel fashion. Even so, the league tends to choose host cities with newly built facilities, such as MetLife Stadium. Soldier Field, meanwhile, is the oldest stadium in the NFL, having opened in 1924. It underwent extensive internal renovations in 2003, but the ancient exterior was maintained, and critics panned the overhaul as looking like "a spaceship landed on the stadium."
A stadium just shy of the seating requirements might also be "workable" if this were almost any other city, but aside from the great concentration of hotels in the downtown area where Soldier Field is located, Chicago doesn't exactly boast ideal conditions for a Super Bowl. This year's cold-weather game in New Jersey didn't live up to its name, with a game-time temperature of 49 degrees, but the league can't expect to get so lucky in the future. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell seems to realize this, at least, dancing around the prospect of another Super Bowl in a cold city. And if you thought New York's winter has been especially bad this year, Chicago in February is even worse on average.
Potentially expanding Soldier Field raises another question: What would Chicago actually stand to gain from this? Many sports economists believe the economic impact of a Super Bowl on its host city is largely overblown, especially in cities such as New York and Chicago that already attract a ton of tourists. For this year's game in East Rutherford, hotel occupancy was just 61 percent in Bergen Country, N.J., 79 percent in Times Square, and 75 percent in midtown and uptown Manhattan -- far below the near-sellouts experienced in smaller New Orleans and Scottsdale. Furthermore, daily hotel rates didn't spike nearly as much as for previous hosts, largely because New York already boasts the most expensive rooms in the country. As an already elite tourism destination, it's safe to say Chicago would experience a similar lag.
Finally, the cost of a potential Soldier Field expansion is no small consideration, given Chicago's ongoing economic crisis. Moody's just downgraded the city's credit rating as its four municipal pension funds face funding holes of nearly $20 billion. No word yet on how much the expansion would be expected to cost, but history doesn't lend confidence to the city's ability to color within its fiscal lines. Estimates for the previous Soldier Field renovation put the cost of the project at around $600 million, $400 million of which would come from state bonds. According to the Chicago Tribune, the final price tag came out around $690 million -- $432 million from public coffers, with the city having to make up the difference.
Look, I love Chicago, I really do. I have a ton of family there and always enjoy the cultural facilities (and fantastic public transportation) the beautiful city has to offer. If I were to choose my ideal vacation in the continental U.S., catching a game at Wrigley Field and dinner at Alinea would be hard to beat. But I'll stick to visiting the Windy City in the spring or fall and watching a warm-weather Super Bowl from the couch in my heated apartment.
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