The Chicago Fire and MLS are in talks with the Village of Bridgeview to exit the team's lease at SeatGeek Stadium, with the intention of returning to Soldier Field for the 2020 season, sources have confirmed to ESPN. The club is also exploring a potential rebranding that could see the team shed the Fire moniker.
Sources confirmed that the deal would involve a significant cash payout towards the debt on the stadium, though no precise numbers were given. Sources also confirmed that the push to get out of the lease has been going on for the better part of a year, with Joe Mansueto, who acquired 49 percent of the club last summer, at the forefront of the efforts.
Some details of the plans began to emerge on social media on Wednesday, courtesy of James Vlahakis, the club's former outside counsel. Vlahakis is currently representing a Chicago Fire fan in a lawsuit against club general manager Nelson Rodriguez relating to an incident last season that allegedly resulted in physical harm at the hands of stadium security personnel.
Vlahakis' tweet indicated that a rebrand that involved changing the name to Chicago City Football Club is in the works, but one source told ESPN FC that such a decision has not yet been made.
The Fire declined to comment on any potential move out of SeatGeek Stadium, and would only state, "We don't comment on social media speculation from individuals outside the organization."
The Fire have played at SeatGeek Stadium, formerly known as Toyota Park, since the 2006 campaign. At the time, the 20,000-seat stadium was hailed as the latest success story for MLS in terms of building right-sized venues.
Financial success for both the team and municipality has proved elusive, however. The Village of Bridgeview owns the venue, and hoped the venue would spark development in the area. But the stadium has proved to be a massive financial drain on the municipality. Bridgeview sold $134.6 million of bonds in 2005 to finance the project. But when development in the area failed to materialize, Bridgeview was forced to take on additional debt. A report from Bloomberg stated that as of February of 2018, Bridgeview had about $260 million of general obligation debt, "much of it tied to the stadium."
That burden saw property taxes for the municipality's residents double between 2009 and 2013. In 2017, Standard & Poor's downgraded Bridgeview's debt rating from investment grade to junk. A recent naming rights deal with SeatGeek, estimated between $2.5 million and $4 million per year, provided a glimmer of good news.
The venue's location, 15 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, has proven to be a weight around the Fire as well. The stadium is not easily accessible from downtown, and the team has little to no visibility in the city, despite the arrival two years ago of German star Bastian Schweinsteiger. Attendance has tended to rise and fall with the team's success. The Fire has made the playoffs just twice in the last nine years. A Schweinsteiger-fueled run to the playoffs in 2017 saw attendance increase to 17,383 from 15,602 the year prior. But a dismal season in 2018 saw attendance fall to 14,806.
Soldier Field, home of the NFL's Chicago Bears, has a capacity of 61,500. The Fire played there from 1998 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2005.