Inflexible Scheduling

The NFL is arguably the most successful professional sports league on the planet, but they really blew it on this one. The Bears host the Packers on New Year's Eve at Soldier Field, and despite the fact that 60,000 ticket-holders and countless others ready to watch on TV had already planned their day accordingly, kickoff was moved from noon to 7:15 p.m. with less than a week's notice.

New Year's Eve in Chicago has been dubbed 'amateur night' by downtown residents for quite some time. Not only do you have the normal urban crowd out and about, but travelling tourists and suburban warriors from near and far venture into the city and double the usual congestion. It's difficult to get a quality dinner reservation, the bars are ridiculously packed, and getting a cab is next to impossible.

But believe it or not, the National Football League just threw an even bigger monkey wrench into the equation.

The NFL announced on Tuesday that Sunday's season-ending matchup between the Bears and Packers originally scheduled for noon has been moved to NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcast. That means the game will begin at 7:15 p.m. on one of the busiest - not to mention one of the most dangerous - nights of the year in one of the biggest cities in the country. An additional 60,000 football plans who had probably planned to be long gone from Soldier Field by nightfall will now be emptying into the Chicago streets in the waning moments of 2006.

Offensive tackle John St. Clair was forced to rearrange his New Year's Eve plans just like countless Bears fans.

"Yeah, I had plans with my wife," St. Clair said, "but we've got to change that now. Business comes first."

Even though this could be a big inconvenience for players and fans alike, St. Clair knows there is some give and take with his job.

"It goes both ways," he explained. "In one direction, you made plans already. On the other side, you're playing on prime time football. So being a player, it's like everybody wants to play on prime time, so it gives you a chance for everybody to see you play. But if you already had plans, like you were a fan or something, I can see why they're mad, too. It's a difficult thing, especially on New Year's Eve. It's a big day, man."

But what about all the other people affected by this decision? People who don't put on a football uniform to go to work. People who buy tickets and souvenirs so players like St. Clair can bask in the glow of under-the-lights glory.

Based on the initial reaction around Chicagoland, those people aren't very happy.

The Bears have one of the more loyal and rabid fan bases in the league, and many of them plan their Sundays accordingly based on when the Monsters of the Midway lace up their spikes. Whether they are going to Soldier Field to see the game in person or just tuning in on television, the Bears carry an awful lot of weight in this town. The NFL instituted 'flexible scheduling' this season to avoid being stuck with stinker games in prime time, but the suits in the league office dropped the ball on this one.

Let's say you're John Q. Bears Fan, but you're not quite fortunate enough to be a season-ticket holder and, therefore, only able to attend one game per year. You want your wife and two daughters to enjoy a fun-filled New Year's Eve from start to finish. A Bears game in the afternoon, a fancy dinner at McCormick & Schmick's afterward, and then a date to see the hit musical Wicked at the Oriental Theater that night. You went to an online ticket broker like TicketChest.com and spent $820 for four seats in the 21st row of section 443, which are up in the nosebleeds, by the way. You were lucky enough to get four orchestra tickets for Wicked at $85 each, although you had to buy them three months in advance before the December 31st show sold out.

That's $1,160 you've spent already, and that doesn't even include parking and four Italian beef sandwiches at Soldier Field, dinner and a bottle of wine at McCormick & Schmick's, and a signed poster from the entire Wicked cast for your daughters' bedroom. When it's all said and done, John Q. Bears Fan will drop about $2,000, but that will certainly be a day to remember for the whole family and worth every precious penny.

Too bad the NFL just ruined John Q. Bears Fan's plan that he spent a month to organize and two weeks salary to afford.

Kicker Robbie Gould, on the other hand, doesn't seem to mind the late flip-flop in the schedule.

"It's cool to play on prime time," Gould said. "It's Sunday night with [John] Madden, the whole crew. It's going to be fun. It's going to be awesome to play the Packers, but whether it's at noon or at 7:15, you've still got to show up and play your best."

That being said, Gould acknowledges that many fans are not going to be happy with the NFL's decision and could have their evening plans go up in smoke.

"No matter where, what stadium you put it at, what fans," he said, "any fan is going to be upset with a New Year's Eve night game."

Tight end Gabe Reid is a family man who doesn't spend his time mingling in the Windy City's myriad nightime hotspots, but even he is feeling the effects of this decision.

"I have to change my New Year's plans," Reid said. "Push it all back a little bit."

Reid doesn't have to worry about the time change quite as much because he'll be in uniform either way, but he realizes that a lot of football fans are being put in a difficult spot.

"I guess it's easier for me to say, ‘Yeah, I can deal with it' because this is my job," he said. "But if I was a fan, I could kind of see where they're coming from."

Hard-fought dinner reservations are being cancelled all over Chicago as we speak. The police will have an even tougher task coordinating stadium traffic and the ensuing Lake Shore Drive gridlock nightmare. Bars and restaurants from Edison Park to Hyde Park and every Park in between may now have to amend their entertainment schedules and account for late-arriving crowds that were watching the game at home on TV.

All for a one-tenth ratings spike so the NFL can demand more money from advertisers and command more untold billions when the next television contract is negotiated. New Commissioner Roger Goodell has a multi-million-dollar salary in large part because football fans from sea to shining sea empty their pockets for replica jerseys and the Sunday Ticket package from DirecTV. Yet for some reason, those very same fans seem to be the last ones consulted whenever a big decision is made.

Just like Bud Fox said to Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, "How many yachts can you waterski behind?"

Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?

Not this time, Mr. Goodell.

JC

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