LAKE FOREST – Kevin Warren bought himself a ticket in the stands. Over the last 30 or so years as an NFL player agent, then an NFL executive, then as Big Ten commissioner, Warren hadn’t sat in the stands for a game.
He spent game days in suites and press boxes. Those days were usually stressful for him. There were a lot of people vying for his attention. When he led the Vikings, he frequently rewatched the game on Monday because he felt like he hardly watched it on Sundays.
“When you think about it, this is silly,” Warren said this week at Halas Hall.
If he was going to run an NFL organization again, he wanted to remember what it felt like to be a fan.
On Dec. 18, he parked in the Soldier Field lots with the rest of the fans and walked in the same way everybody else did. He saw the 80-year-old fans mixed in with the 5-year-old fans. He watched Justin Fields and the Bears fight to the end in a one-possession loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. When Fields ripped off a 39-yard run, the stadium went wild.
He loved the passion and the energy.
“These are the best fans in the NFL,” Warren said. “They deserve championships. We are going to bring championships. We are going to do everything that we possibly can to deliver that.”
Warren won’t be spending many games in the stands anymore. A few short weeks later, the Bears named Warren the fifth-ever team president and CEO.
‘My sweet spot’
Warren comes to the Bears after just three and a half years as Big Ten commissioner. In a post that people stay in for decades, Warren is leaving quicker than most college careers. Jim Delany kept the job for three decades (1989-2020). Delany’s predecessor, Wayne Duke, lasted nearly two (1971-89).
Warren’s tenure with the Big Ten was far from perfect. He took much of the blame, at least publicly, when the Big Ten initially canceled the 2020 football season due to COVID-19, while other conference played on. The conference eventually agreed to play a shortened schedule.
He brings with him a track record of thinking outside the box. Why can’t the Big Ten spread its football media rights deal across three networks, similar to what the NFL does? They’ll be on Fox, CBS and NBC next fall. USC and UCLA in the Big Ten? It’ll happen in 2024.
So why leave now?
Warren wouldn’t have left for any NFL job. The challenges that lie ahead for the Bears are intriguing to him. The team hasn’t won a championship in 37 years. The organization is in the midst of buying a 326-acre plot of land in Arlington Heights for a new stadium. Those two challenges alone – turning the team around and building a new stadium – could make this franchise look drastically different in five years, in 10 years.
“I always want to have something where you get out of the bed in the morning that you say there is too much to do,” Warren said. “Because, with that, what I’ve learned in my life, that’s when I know I’m in my sweet spot and that’s when I know I have to really rely on my relationship with God and prayer and faith and to work hard and come together. And so if things had been in place here, totally, I wouldn’t have been as attracted.”
He will bring that willingness to question norms to Halas Hall. His to-do list with the Bears is lengthy, but by far the No. 1 objective will be finding a way to get a stadium deal done.
Warren spearheaded the Vikings’ bid to build what became U.S. Bank Stadium. He had 20 years experience in NFL front offices, including five years as chief operating officer of the Vikings, prior to becoming Big Ten commissioner.
When he moved over to the Big Ten, he went from operating an organization with several hundred employees to overseeing a conference with thousands of athletes and hundreds of coaches and administrators.
“In the Big Ten, I woke up and it’s 10,000 student athletes, 28 sports that we sponsored across 11 states, 14 chancellors, 14 presidents, 14 athletic directors, 14 senior administrators, alumni, fans, people who donate, political elements of it,” Warren said. “It was a change. What I’m looking for here, once I make the total transition, is to be able to take that stretch of what happened to put it back in one location.”
Warren believes he’s leaving the Big Ten a better place than when he found it. Two years ago, Fields spearheaded the effort by Big Ten athletes to return to play during the fall of 2020. A former college basketball player himself, Warren said he would’ve done the same thing if he were in Fields’ shoes.
Fields will have Warren’s full attention now. The number of people tugging at Warren will be much fewer than at the Big Ten. The challenges, however, might not be any easier.
In Warren’s ideal vision, he will bridge the gap between the football side of the organization and the business side. Business decisions impact football and football decisions impact business.
“If you’re an owner, you don’t wake up in the morning and say how’s my business side of the Chicago Bears doing and how’s the football side?” Warren said. “You say, how’s my franchise doing? Having a person like me be able to work on both sides of the aisle with that, I think it’s important.”
‘An opportunity to refocus, to reenergize’
Warren marveled at the sheer size of the hole. The Vikings were building a new stadium. In order to build up, they first had to dig down into the ground.
“You see the hole, it’s really massive,” Warren said. “So the cost of that ... you had to be very thoughtful in the design of what this was going to be.”
Last fall, as he was mulling over taking the Bears job, Warren drove to the site of Arlington International Racecourse. He pulled right up to the racetrack.
He took note of how far the location was from the highway and what the area was like. He wanted to see just how far the drive to Arlington Heights really was. Having built a stadium once before with the Vikings, he had some experience in this area.
“You never know,” Warren said. “Sometimes I’ve been in other states where someone says they’re thinking about building a stadium here. You go and it’s like 20 miles out of town. I’m like, ‘Nah, that may not work.’”
The Bears have only one chance to do this right.
In general, NFL teams are money-making machines. Having a new stadium, one the team owns, will only increase the value of the franchise and make everyone involved richer. In 2010, the Vikings ranked 30th on Forbes’ list of most expensive NFL franchises. In the ensuing decade-plus, after building U.S. Bank Stadium, they’ve jumped up to 18th.
The Bears currently rank fifth on Forbes’ 2022 list, with an estimated price tag of $5.8 billion.
Building a new stadium, or not, will be the most impactful thing this franchise does over the next several decades. Warren’s predecessor Ted Phillips has gotten the Bears to this point, where they hope to close on the land in the next few months. It will be Warren’s task to turn that land into a stadium.
“He has produced results everywhere he has been,” Phillips said of Warren. “That’s not easy to do. He has the ability to make tough decisions. He listens to people, gets their input and he is rock solid when there is pressure.”
Did the Bears necessarily need a change in energy? Chairman George McCaskey didn’t think so.
“There’s plenty of energy in the building, but I think any time there’s a change, it’s an opportunity to refocus, to reenergize, to look at your strengths and weaknesses and capitalize on the strengths and minimize the weaknesses,” McCaskey said.
Still, McCaskey swung for the fences with this hire. Stealing Warren from the Big Ten is certainly a PR win for the Bears. With Warren in the building Tuesday, the energy felt different.
But energy guarantees nothing.
“Any of these opportunities or jobs, you have to be tough and you better be able to operate with dirt in your mouth,” Warren said during Tuesday’s news conference. “It’s one thing to be able to put on a suit and come to a podium like this, but ... it’s about just grinding out and it’s the day-to-day grind that you need to be prepared for.”