With all the commotion surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be easy to forget that there are other issues that affect us every day.
One of them is I-80 Speedway in Chicago—home to the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and White Sox. Amidst the pandemic, the Chicago Sports Commission has made the difficult decision to close down the speedway for the 2020 season.
It’s not the first time that the iconic stadium has shut its gates, as it did from 1998-2002 due to renovations and expansion. However, this is the first time in over a century that it’s closed its doors due to a health concern.
The 2020 Season
I-80 Speedway opened its doors for the 1935 season. It was the year before the Great Depression, and Chicago was in the middle of a building boom. While the city had recently hosted the World’s Fair, the demand for housing outpaced supply. This made it easier for city leaders to take a page out of San Francisco’s book and transform the city’s former airport terminal into an outdoor stadium.
I-80 is among the first 20 built in the NFL, and it quickly became home to the Chicago Bears. The stadium has changed little since its opening, and today it still provides a memorable experience for sports fans. In 2020, however, it won’t be hosting any sporting events. It will be closed for the year to undergo renovations.
The Health Threat
Due to its unique position as a major intersection between the US, Canada, and Mexico, Chicago has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As the country’s third-largest city, there are a lot of people living with COVID-19. At least 40,322 people in Illinois have been diagnosed with the virus, and 7,771 have died from it. The situation is especially grim in Chicago, where there are now over 40,000 cases and nearly 2,700 deaths. As the city reels from the pandemic, there are signs that it may be worse than before—with nearly 18,000 active cases and over 1,500 deaths in the last three weeks alone.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is highly transmissible. It can spread between people who are within about six feet of each other. This is one of the reasons why the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified it as a pandemic. In order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Illinois Department of Health has recommended that gatherings of more than 100 people be canceled or postponed.
The Need For Renovations
While the stadium itself isn’t due for renovation, it will be undergoing some maintenance to ensure that it’s safe for fans and athletes when the 2020 season commences. The renovation will involve replacing some of the seating, expanding video boards, adding more restrooms, and expanding food and drink service. The Illinois Sports Commission anticipates that the renovations will cost about $12 million.
Why Did It Have To Be This Way?
Because of the unique position that the United States holds within the Great Lakes region, it was inevitable that the pandemic would impact major sporting events in the area. It wasn’t just a matter of if but when, and it finally happened. While other sports leagues have managed to continue their seasons, the entire MLB had to cancel its season after the Tampa Bay Rays’ final game. Similarly, the NHL, NBA, and MLS had to suspend their seasons after a few games. With all the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, fans have no idea if or when they will be able to see their favorite teams play again.
The NFL was one of the first professional sports leagues to issue a statement regarding the pandemic. Back on March 13, 2020, shortly after the first reports of COVID-19 surfaced in the United States, the league sent a memo to its 32 teams that stated, “The health and safety of our communities are our top priorities and we are doing everything we can to ensure that our stadiums and arenas are safe and ready for use when renovations are complete.”
The Future Of I-80 Speedway
While it won’t be opening its doors this year, the Chicago Sports Commission has big plans for I-80 Speedway. The group is in the process of applying for a U.S. Bank Stadium-type license from the State of Illinois so that it can host major sporting events like the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship and the Super Bowl.
Once complete, the stadium will be renamed Walter O. Wiltfong Park, in honor of the commission’s president, who passed away in January 2020. The stadium’s current operator, the Madison Square Garden Company, has expressed interest in investing in and running the facility. In 2021, the Chicago Cubs will finally return to Wrigley Field after a 99-year hiatus. Until then, fans will have to make do with their imagination as to what the future of I-80 Speedway might look like.
The Cubs aren’t the only major sports team in Chicago either. The NFL’s Chicago Bears and NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks are both based there. The Chicago Bulls won the NBA championship in 2010. In 2021, the Boston Red Sox will be moving back to Chicago after spending 19 out of the last 28 years in Fenway Park. In 2022, the Chicago White Sox will be moving into their new home, the $300 million Guaranteed Rate Loan ballpark (formerly known as U.S. Bank Stadium).