Reif: Is Soldier Field an alternative to Ryan Field?

Richard Reif, Op-Ed Contributor

Why does Northwestern plan to spend a nine-figure fortune to redesign its football stadium with a seating capacity one-quarter lower than it currently holds? 

I raise this question after learning my alma mater wants to spend up to $800 million for a renovated Ryan Field with 35,000 seats — 12,000 fewer than its current capacity. That’s comparable to a homeowner spending lavishly to downsize a house from eight to six rooms. $480 million of the renovation’s cost was earmarked in a donation from alumni Pat and Shirley Ryan, the field’s namesakes. That means NU must raise another $320 million in funds via donations, a bond issue or other means, to finance Ryan Field’s extensive facelift.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle to overcome. Residents of Evanston’s 7th Ward, where Ryan Field is located, have raised complaints about noise, transit and parking problems where the Wildcats play their home games. Many aren’t happy about hosting a renovated stadium in their neighborhood and City Council has yet to approve the planned project. If it does, the construction process is projected to bring 2,900 new jobs and $10 million in fee revenue to Evanston, according to the University.

 Because NU faces some stiff headwinds on this project, why not consider an alternative site? I propose Soldier Field, full-time home of the Chicago Bears since 1971. The Bears now lease Soldier Field from the Chicago Park District under an agreement that runs through 2033. But, they can exit the lease in 2026 by paying a fee of $84 million, according to the Chicago Tribune. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is trying to persuade the Bears to remain at Soldier Field. She proposed expanding its capacity to 70,000 “total seats including additional fan activation areas.” If the Bears elect to leave, she has a “Plan B” that includes inviting other teams to play there.

While many issues must be worked out, I think NU should consider Soldier Field as a new home for the Wildcats, even if the Bears decide to remain there. The Wildcats play nearly all home games on Saturday, while the Bears, like all NFL teams, play mainly on Sunday. Smart scheduling could resolve conflicts.  

A 62,000-seat stadium will generate more revenue than one with 35,000 seats. But, that’s not the only reason NU’s football team should move there. The Wildcats promote themselves as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” and have played some games at Wrigley Field under a partnership with the Cubs. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” to play all of its home games in a football stadium that’s hosted an NFL team for decades? Not to mention, NU also has a history with Soldier Field, having played in the first collegiate football game to be hosted at the stadium, in 1924. Playing there would bolster NU’s growing relationship with Chicago.

But the most important reason for choosing Soldier Field is the potential for savings. I don’t know how much the Chicago Park District will charge NU to lease the site, but I’m certain it will be considerably less than $800 million over a multi-year period of time. NU could use the money saved for other vital purposes, such as expanding student housing, increasing student financial aid, adding staff to the Counseling and Psychological Services and providing food and winter clothing for those low income students who need more of both.

One drawback to using Soldier Field is its distance from NU’s Evanston campus, compared to Ryan Field’s location. But NU can solve that problem by chartering buses. Students can also take the Chicago Transit Authority, Uber, Lyft or other ride sharing services to Soldier Field.

Some students and faculty might object to this move, but the biggest howls of protest may come from alumni who fondly recall watching the Wildcats play at Ryan Field, or Dyche Stadium, as it was originally named. I enjoyed many Saturday afternoons there while I was a Medill graduate student, 1962-64. But, evoking past pleasures does not justify endorsing future expenses.

Construction for a redesigned Ryan Field is scheduled to start after the 2023 football season ends and is targeted for completion by the start of the 2026 season. That gives NU’s Board of Trustees ample time to seriously consider and thoroughly evaluate Soldier Field as an alternate site for the Wildcats football team. Not all of the Daily’s readers will agree with me, but I hope those who do will make their voices heard.

Richard Reif is a Medill alum. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.