Soldier on

Critics have dubbed it the “Eyesore on the Lakeshore,” but publications like The New York Times raved about the new $606 million Soldier Field.

That echoes the sentiments of its architects, Ben Wood and Carlos Zapata, who said that the city will grow to love the innovatively-designed 62,200-seat stadium.

Bearing some of the criticism was Chicago Bears CEO Ted Phillips, who negotiated the project with the city of Chicago Park District and lobbied state legislators to issue an Illinois Sports Facilities Authority bond, which raised $387 million of the price tag.

Although the stadium is the most talked-about change to the Chicago Bears franchise, Phillips has made two other significant changes since he was named CEO in 1999. In 2001, he reinstated the general manager position, hiring Jerry Angelo, who is the first to hold that job since 1986.

The following year, Phillips moved the Chicago Bears training camp from southwest Wisconsin to Olivet Nazarene University in Kankakee County.

“(The move) gave us a new fan base of people who had probably never been up to Chicago and gone to Soldier Field,” Phillips says. “We’ve been able to bring the Bears back to the entire state of Illinois, not just to Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.”

Phillips spoke with Smart Business about the strategy behind these changes and how he boosts nonticket revenue for the franchise.

How have the players and the community received the new Soldier Field?

Very well. Despite some early public criticism by what I would refer to as the vocal minority about the exterior of the building, everyone who has been in the building, experienced it, especially now that it has opened, has come away very impressed.

It’s fair to say, from our perspective, that our objectives were met. Our objectives were not to have 100 percent agreement on the exterior architecture. Our goals were, from a team standpoint, to provide our fans with a facility that has the kind of state-of-the-art amenities and was a great experience on game day, which they’ve never had.

Obviously, the Bears have never played in a stadium that was built for football. From that standpoint, as you see the great reviews, I’m very pleased with it. Our goal is to keep the fans coming and keep that game day experience second to none.

What was the key to the project’s success?

When I was named CEO, one of the first things that I did is I extended the old lease at Soldier Field. With that came some risks because we didn’t like the terms of that old agreement.

The reason we did it was to take some of the pressure off of having the lease expire with no new agreement, but more importantly, it was to try and build some trust with the (Chicago) park district.

We had had some acrimonious relationships up until that point, and I wanted to rebuild some trust so that there was a new way of doing business. As part of that lease extension, we had an agreement in writing that if we could jointly come together with the city and park district on a site within the city for a new Bears stadium, that they would not hold the Bears to the terms of that old lease agreement.

That started to build some trust.

It really ended being a unique deal in that we ended up starting at the top, where we got the mayor’s buy-in and the governor’s buy-in because doing it the opposite way would’ve taken much longer than we really had. Then we came up with a public financing arrangement, which, frankly, has been understated in terms of its uniqueness and importance to this project.

There was no tax increase, there was no extension of a tax. In short, it was a transfer of money that would’ve gone to McCormick Place over to Soldier Field. The tax that backs it is really a hotel-motel tax, which, for the most part, affects visitors. Then, once we had the financing in place, everything else came together.

Why did you move the Bears training camp back to Illinois?

It became apparent to me that it was time to refocus on Illinois and our fan base. We scoured Illinois — several different sites — to see what would make sense, and the site that we ended up with at Olivet Nazarene worked perfectly because it was downstate, so it gave us a new fan base of people who had probably never been up to Chicago and gone to Soldier Field.

Also, since we knew we were going to be playing at the University of Illinois while we were doing the construction timeframe, it gave those fans down there, not only training camp, but downstate in Champaign (a chance to see the Bears) too. We’ve been able to bring the Bears back to the entire state of Illinois, not just to Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.

You reinstated the general manager position for the first time since 1986. Why?

When I was named CEO, Dick Jauron had been named the new head coach just weeks before, and I wanted to take some time to see how the football operations were progressing under Dick’s leadership.

The reason for bringing in a general manager was not because I didn’t think Dick was doing a good job as coach then, and he had the respect of the players, but I sensed that we needed another strong football voice in the organization, not just the coach.

Something that kind of gets overlooked in terms of professional football teams is the continuity and the communication in the front office.

How have you diversified your revenue streams?

That’s a good question, especially because in the NFL there’s such a strong emphasis on revenue sharing. It’s hard to distinguish yourself from the other teams, and as happy as I am with our stadium deal, we pay a very high rent to the park district to make that deal work.

The pressure is on us to try and find ways to increase what we would call our nonshared revenues with other clubs. What we’ve done is expand our marketing and sales staff, for one.

And since we weren’t able to have a naming rights situation at Soldier Field, what we’ve done is, we didn’t want to clutter the stadium with dozens of different sponsor signs. So we looked at our stadium as having different special areas, and we sold what we called “Hall-of-Fame Partnerships” so that there were fewer sponsors who had more of a presence.

We sold sponsorships and signage that way, and it turned out very successful. How to reach: Chicago Bears, (847)295-6600 or