Chicago Bears threaten to leave town, and this time politicians shrug – Chicago Tribune

The road from Soldier Field to Arlington International Racecourse is 31.2 miles and years in the making, marking it as potentially the longest and biggest scoring drive in Chicago Bears’ history.

A lot has changed in the decades since Chicago last confronted the issue of a new playground for the Bears, before the team settled into a vastly remodeled and reconfigured Soldier Field in 2003 after years of negotiations involving the city and the state.

There is the booming success of the National Football League and the value of its franchises, the growing importance of year-round climate-controlled stadiums as a revenue asset for teams and far greater public opposition toward subsidizing multibillion-dollar sports facilities for wealthy owners.

But one thing has stayed the same over the years.

“It’s not so much the size of the market. It’s the stadium deal,” Ted Phillips, now the Bears’ president and CEO, said in 1996 when he was the team’s point man in negotiating for a stadium. “Stadium revenues are what NFL teams are shooting for.”

Chicago Bears President Ted Phillips speaks with the press at Halas Hall on Dec. 31, 2019, in Lake Forest.

Chicago Bears President Ted Phillips speaks with the press at Halas Hall on Dec. 31, 2019, in Lake Forest. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

And in the 100 years since the Decatur Staleys packed up, moved north and changed their name to the Chicago Bears, the team has never owned its own stadium.

The founding NFL franchise took a major step toward ending its tenant status on Wednesday when the team announced it had signed a purchase agreement for the now-shuttered Arlington racetrack and its 326 acres of development potential in a prime northwest suburban location. The deal is not final, but allows the Bears to further explore the construction of a stadium on the Arlington Heights site.

In a statement, Phillips said the $197.2 million deal with property owner Churchill Downs charts a path “that allows our team to thrive on the field, Chicagoland to prosper from this endeavor and the Bears organization to be ensured a strong future.”

In past decades, threats by the Bears to relocate from Soldier Field, its home since 1971 after nearly 50 years at Wrigley Field, to Hoffman Estates, Aurora and even Gary, sent state and city politicians scrambling to put together a deal that included public financing to keep the team in Chicago.

But the Bears’ Arlington Heights announcement has found political leaders taking a more measured tone, reflecting the current shape of state and city finances and public attitudes over how tax dollars are spent.

While some shudder at the thought of the Bears playing in the suburbs, the potential departure of a founding NFL team in its 101st season isn’t carrying as much weight as when the late Mayor Richard J. Daley vowed to sue the team over its use of “Chicago” in its team name if it left town. That’s particularly true when so many other NFL teams are playing outside the city in their names.

The Bears announced the suburban land deal on the 18th anniversary of the inauguration of a $690 million renovation of Soldier Field — a 38-23 Monday night loss to the rival Green Bay Packers. The 2003 renovation plopped a glass and steel structure atop the limestone and colonnades of the original 1924 monument to World War I veterans. Taxpayers covered $432 million of the project, an amount that will grow substantially once the debt and interest are paid off in 2032.

Soldier Field under construction on Feb. 26, 2003, in Chicago.

Soldier Field under construction on Feb. 26, 2003, in Chicago. (SCOTT STRAZZANTE / CHICAGO TRIBUNE)

The taxpayer-funded debt payments would continue, even if the team breaks its Soldier Field lease early, which runs until 2033. If the Bears were to break that agreement in five years, they’d face an estimated $84 million penalty, a Tribune analysis found. The longer the Bears take to move out, the smaller the penalty would become.

Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar said he couldn’t imagine the Bears receiving public financing for a new stadium, “because we’re still paying on the bonds for Soldier Field.”

In the mid-1990s, Edgar favored what became known as “McDome,” a domed-stadium expansion to McCormick Place that the Bears vetoed in favor of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Soldier Field renovation plan. That decision was made in part because of the team’s desire to maintain an open-air stadium for the “Bear Weather” factor. There’s no talk of cold-weather mythology this time around.

“What’s still fresh in most people’s minds is we just paid for a stadium and that, I think, makes it extremely difficult to sell (taxpayer financing) to the public,” Edgar said. “These things were always hard to sell to the public.”

While there has been talk from some elected officials that Chicago should do what it can to keep the Bears in the city, many have made it clear that should not include another giant taxpayer giveaway.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has expressed frustration that the Bears have yet to engage in any negotiations with her, saying, “I’m not going to bargain against myself,” while noting that new NFL stadiums cost in excess of $1 billion.

“I want them to stay in the name city, and if we can keep them here, we’ll keep them here and we’ll make every effort to do so,” Lightfoot told reporters earlier this week. “But we’ve got to do a deal that makes sense for the taxpayers of the city.”

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday that his administration is not considering any state subsidies for a new Bears stadium and that he was not aware of the charter NFL franchise making such a request.

Bears fans check out the new Soldier Field, finding their seats as well as looking at the design and landscape of the renovated stadium on Sept. 27, 2003.

Bears fans check out the new Soldier Field, finding their seats as well as looking at the design and landscape of the renovated stadium on Sept. 27, 2003. (ABEL URIBE / CHICAGO TRIBUNE)

While Pritzker stopped short of unequivocally ruling out any state aid, he insisted it was not a priority.

Many other lawmakers have expressed opposition to any public money for the Bears, including Democratic state Reps. Mike Zalewski of Riverside and Kam Buckner of Chicago, whose district includes Soldier Field. The two legislators filed a resolution Thursday urging the General Assembly “to take all necessary steps to ensure that no state or local taxpayer money is used in the construction of new professional sport stadiums.”

Even Ald. Sophia King, whose ward includes Soldier Field, has made it clear the city shouldn’t dangle an open checkbook in front of the team.

“Obviously, we want to keep the Bears,” said King, 4th. “At all costs? No.”

Asked how the state’s political climate had changed since the Bears last received hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, Pritzker suggested lessons have been learned from mistakes that led to budget deficits and massive pension liabilities

“I think it’s important for us to be responsible with the resources that we have, and I think we’ve proven that is one big change, actually,” the governor said, noting that, until this year, the state’s credit rating had not seen any upward movement over the last 20 years. “We’re doing much better as a state from a fiscal perspective, and there’s more work that needs to be done. That’s what we’re focused on.”

Asked if it was appropriate to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize a multibillion-dollar stadium, Pritzker replied, “That’s not something that I would decide for a city.” Asked if it would be appropriate for the state to do so, Pritzker said it’s “not something we’re looking at doing.”

“I can just tell you at the state level, we’re focused on balancing the budget and maintaining our positive course, in terms of fiscal balance, getting credit upgrades and having a strong fiscal plan,” he said.

Soldier Field is the league’s smallest stadium with a capacity of 61,500. Its historic colonnades don’t allow for seat expansion and it is ill-suited for a third renovation to put a dome over it.

At one point in the mid-1980s, the team proposed building a stadium on the parking lots south of Soldier Field and tearing down the historic monument. But public opposition to dismantling an iconic veterans’ memorial quickly squashed that idea then and still exists despite a redesign that has cost the stadium its national landmark status.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push to allow “Star Wars” movie mogul George Lucas to build his art museum on a Soldier Field parking lot demonstrated that any effort to build anew on the lakefront would be met with swift resistance in court from parks advocates. Also, plenty of publicly financed stadiums that have opened in the last couple decades have failed to result in much-touted economic benefits, said University of Chicago sports economist Allen Sanderson.

“You just don’t want to spend a whole lot of money on a football stadium, because it’s an economic loser,” said Sanderson, who voiced opposition to the Soldier Field renovation at the time it was approved. “There are two things you don’t want to spend money to put on a high-priced piece of real estate. One is a cemetery, and the other is a football stadium that is open 10 times per year. For all practical purposes, Soldier Field is open 100 hours per year.”

If the city would spend millions to improve what he terms the “crappy spaceship,” or the city, state or some other local government were to spend big on a new stadium, it would be irresponsible all the same, Sanderson said. The only Chicago sports franchise that can argue it is an economic benefit to the region is the Cubs, he said, because Wrigley Field is one of the state’s top tourist attractions every summer.

“Whether it’s on the lakefront or in Arlington Heights, it’s just redistributing where the money is spent in the greater Chicago area. The net economic impact isn’t worth measuring,” Sanderson said of a Bears stadium. “There are not tourists coming to Chicago in December to watch the Bears play. Virtually everybody is local.”

Taxpayers covered more than 60% of the cost of the Soldier Field renovation, but the Park District continues to own the stadium. Around the country, however, the percentage of taxpayer funding used to pay for new, privately owned NFL stadiums has been on the decline in recent years.

Between 1998 and 2003, 14 new NFL stadiums opened and all but three were majority-funded by taxpayers, according to a recent analysis by the Buffalo News that came out as the NFL’s Bills are seeking a new stadium.

Soldier Field, right, home of the Chicago Bears, on Sept. 29, 2021. The Chicago Bears have signed a purchase agreement for Arlington International Racecourse, a move that takes the team a step closer toward securing property for a new stadium and leaving their longtime home at Soldier Field.

Soldier Field, right, home of the Chicago Bears, on Sept. 29, 2021. The Chicago Bears have signed a purchase agreement for Arlington International Racecourse, a move that takes the team a step closer toward securing property for a new stadium and leaving their longtime home at Soldier Field. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Of the seven NFL stadiums that opened between 1998 and 2001, taxpayers on average covered 80% of the cost of construction, ranging from 100% on the high end (Tampa Bay) to 61% on the low end (Pittsburgh).

But of the seven NFL stadiums built since 2009, taxpayers on average paid for just 20% of the construction costs, ranging from 45% on the high end (Minneapolis) to 0% on the low end (New York and Los Angeles).

“Cities have wised up to this, saying ‘This isn’t the economic benefit that we thought. We’re not going to do that,’” Sanderson said. “That’s, in part, what is happening. Cities are smarter now.”

State Rep. Jonathan Carroll, a fourth-year Democrat from Northbrook whose district includes parts of Arlington Heights and its neighboring suburbs, said there has been no indication that the Bears are asking the public for any financial package.

“My assumption is the Chicago Bears really aren’t looking for our help,” said Carroll, who added he had not spoken to team officials. “It’s like the perfect storm of the Bears saying, ‘We don’t like where we’re at, and now we can get a big plot of land and we can have it the way we want it.’ ”

Phillips and representatives for the team did not respond to requests for comment.

Questions have flourished over the ability of the Bears to finance a stadium with costs of more than $1 billion. The team, according to a Forbes report in August, is valued at $4.1 billion, making it the league’s seventh most valuable franchise. The figure reflects the explosion of the NFL as a business. When the renovated Soldier Field opened in 2003, Forbes set the team’s worth at $621 million. Just a decade ago, the Bears were valued at $1.2 billion.

Given the size of the Arlington Heights property, related development is likely to play a major role in helping to finance the stadium with the potential of creating a year-round entertainment complex around the facility with retail, hotel and residential properties.

Additionally, the NFL typically approves loans for new stadium construction, and as a founding member of the league the Bears could be expected to receive especially favorable terms. Personal seat licenses for the right to purchase tickets also are a likely financial option and a domed stadium also would allow the team to host large concerts and other events, such as NCAA Final Four, year-round and pocket the revenue.

The move also allows the Bears to open a sportsbook on game days, a point of frustration with Chicago. Just days after the Bears indicated their initial interest in Arlington Park, the team announced it had reached a deal with Rivers Casino to become its exclusive gaming partner.

That deal pointed to a significant interest in the Bears moving to Arlington Park. The racecourse is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., which has a 61% stake in Rivers Casino, with billionaire real estate developer and gambling magnate Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming also owning a share. Bluhm, a minority partner in the Chicago Bulls and White Sox, had previously sought to purchase a stake in the Bears.

“The Bears’ relationship with Rivers Casino right now and being an official partner of the Bears speaks volumes to the kind of partners they want to make,” Carroll said. “That was probably a harbinger of what we’re seeing now.”

While a large-scale public subsidy is improbable, it is likely that a new Bears stadium would get some minor infrastructure funding for roads and sewers such as the privately built United Center received on the West Side.

Lightfoot has made clear that Soldier Field would continue as an entertainment venue, even without the Bears. The facility hosts the Chicago Fire soccer team as well as frequent international matches against teams which often fill the stadium. Its use as an outdoor concert venue would continue. And the South Loop continues as one of the major growth areas of the city.

But Lightfoot also told reporters this week that she had counted at least 11 NFL franchises that don’t play in their namesake city, including both teams in New York and Los Angeles. And if the Bears become the 12th?

“Life goes on,” the mayor said.