Put it on the board

The new head of the agency that owns Sox Park talks hip-hop, baseball and law

 <em>Photo by Rena Naltsas</em>

Chicago’s hip-hop darling Chance the Rapper showed his hometown love in grand fashion last September with Magnificent Coloring Day, a concert at then-U.S. Cellular Field. Several A-list performers — planned and otherwise — performed for a crowd of nearly 48,000, a stadium record.

It was Chance’s first stadium concert, and the first big show that Anthony O’Neill masterminded, as then chief operating officer of Illinois Sports Facilities Authority. O’Neill became the authority’s CEO in April.

The sports authority is a Chicago-based government agency established by the Illinois General Assembly in 1987 to construct and renovate professional sports stadiums in Chicago. The agency’s first order of business was to oversee the building of the new Comiskey Park, which opened in 1991; its biggest client remains the Chicago White Sox, the main tenant of the stadium that’s now known as Guaranteed Rate Field. The team has a $60 million annual budget.

O’Neill’s whirlwind career began at the authority a year and a half ago, when he left Williams Montgomery & John — where he had a multifaceted practice that consisted mostly of antitrust and general litigation work — after nearly seven years to become the authority’s general counsel. He was only in the position for six months before being promoted to chief operating officer and general counsel and, and ultimately, CEO.

“The timing was right for me to become CEO — our predecessor moved to the West Coast and I’d worked hard to earn the confidence of the board,” O’Neill said. “The timing was right.”

In addition to negotiating the name Guaranteed Rate Field and organizing Magnificent Coloring Day, O’Neill and his team also negotiated the first college football game in the field’s history (Northern Illinois Huskies vs. Toledo Rockets last November) and have orchestrated a slate of upcoming festivals and events designed to establish the 26-year-old field as a place for more than just White Sox baseball.

CL: When did you know wanted to be a lawyer?

O’Neill: My grandfather was a judge in Chicago and I grew up around the law and lawyers; the legal influence was very strong in my household. When in high school and college, I was always interested in studying history and literature; I liked to read, and I got to the point where I figured law school made the most sense. I also liked theater — in high school [in Tulsa, Okla.], I was in plays and I had a television show my senior year of high school that was started by [“Saturday Night Live” star] Bill Hader, who was a few years older than me. He started a television show called, “You Can’t Do That on Channel 1” that was a spoof on our teachers. When Bill graduated, they wanted to keep the tradition going, so I had my little host show air before the whole school once a month. All of that made the idea of becoming a trial lawyer exciting.

CL: How did you go from trial attorney aspirations to commercial litigation?

O’Neill: I learned very quickly as a young attorney that trials weren’t conducted as often as they were during the legal boom of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, so I wasn’t trying as many cases as I expected to. But I started focusing more on complex commercial litigation and antitrust litigation, which led me to one of my more exciting issues as a lawyer in private practice: Representing Wrigleyville rooftop owners against the Chicago Cubs about four years ago [while at Williams Montgomery & John].

CL: What was that case like?

O’Neill: It was a very interesting case involving whether the owners of Wrigley Field could erect Jumbotrons or other structures in the outfield. Rooftop owners were staunchly against that because if you put a Jumbotron up, you will effectively put them out of business. There were a lot of political components involving city council and local government and whether or not they could change zoning. You had other legal issues, including contracts, real estate and property rights, not to mention an antitrust component. And, of course, there’s just the nature of the sports business and corporate sponsors in general. There were a lot of moving parts.

CL: What’s the story behind the name Guaranteed Rate Field?

O’Neill: Last summer we changed the name in part because then-sponsor U.S. Cellular wasn’t as active a sponsor as we thought was right for the time. There were other corporate sponsors interested in acquiring those rights and Guaranteed Rate stepped up to the plate. We negotiated that deal and realized there was a significant amount of financial gain for the facility that we didn’t have under the U.S. Cellular deal. We ended up putting $25 million more in revenue and expense savings through that transaction, which went through Aug. 24, 2016.

CL: How are people responding to the name change?

O’Neill: A lot of people like the old name “Comiskey,” but those old names never really die. They call it “Sox Park.” They call it “The Cell,” and I think because it’s still so fresh and new, people haven’t really acclimated to “Guaranteed Rate” yet — plus, it’s a mouthful. People have come up with some clever nicknames like “The Rate,” “GRate,” to give it that shorter, abridged nickname. The jury is still out in terms of how the public perceive it. People in general can be resistant to change, but in time [Guaranteed Rate Field] will pick up some momentum.

CL: What are you and your team working on now?

O’Neill: I’m investing a significant amount of time in cultivating Guaranteed Rate Field into being more than just a baseball stadium, but an entertainment district on Chicago’s South Side. We’re working on programming a number of music festivals, concerts and other non-sporting events over the next couple of years. We’re working with a partner music promoter for En Vivo Live, a Latino music festival to take place in August. In September, we will host an event called One Village Chicago, a music festival with a charitable component that helps prevent local youth from becoming gun violence victims. Similar to our Chance Magnificent Coloring Day event, we will have a number of artists performing at that all-day event on Sept. 16. We’re also working on another music and food festival event that’s country-themed and will feature a barbecue grill competition.

CL: Will sports authority continue doing charity work?

O’Neill: We intend to donate a certain amount of ticket proceeds to certain charities. We haven’t identified them specifically at this moment but only few do youth prevention work and that’s what we’re looking at. It’s an important time right now to really connect with young people and provide that type of prevention counseling, education and the programs that will create opportunities for young people and help divert attention away from things like gangs or other activities that might lead to violence.