Updated: Aug 6, 2022
Could the Bears—the team of Mike Ditka, as synonymous with Chicago as deep dish pizza, hot dogs without ketchup, and corrupt politicians—really leave their lakefront home? After years of talking about it, the team is finally taking concrete legal steps to make it happen.
Earlier this week, the Bears signed a purchase and sale agreement to buy the former site of the Arlington International Racecourse for a reported $197.2 Million. The Bears wouldn’t really replace the horses in suburban Arlington Heights; would they? The prospect of a new stadium—and the new money it would bring the team—might be too enticing to pass up. In fact the first phase of the deal could close as soon as next year.
The Bears have played at Soldier Field since 1971 when they relocated from Wrigley Field to accommodate more fans. Still, Soldier Field features the smallest capacity in the NFL, holding “only” 61,500 fans. Soldier Field is unlike the increasingly modern, and privately owned, stadiums hosting NFL teams. Its owned and operated by the Chicago Park District—not the Bears. The stadium was built in phases between 1922 and 1939. It was later renovated in 2002 (causing it to lose its landmark status). The fan experience has become outdated, and the stadium is surprisingly difficult to enter and exit, given its proximity to downtown Chicago. Importantly, further renovation and modernization is complicated, if not impossible; in addition to the architectural challenges, the stadium is a war memorial, dedicated to veterans of World War I.
Unlike teams that own their own stadium, the Bears lease Soldier Field from the city, meaning they have to split all revenue. The team’s lease runs until 2033; according to the Chicago Tribune, the team would owe the city $84 Million if it were to break that lease in five years. The penalties go down after that. Of course, the team and city would be free to negotiate the team’s exit. Though city officials want to keep the team downtown, they may be powerless to stop the Bears from moving north. $84 Million is a relative pittance in today’s NFL and for the Bears in particular. According to Forbes, the franchise is the 18th most valuable in the world, in any sport, and 7th most valuable in the NFL, worth approximately $3.5 Billion. Under the new nine-figure media rights deal the NFL signed earlier this year, each team is set to get an estimated $321 Million—per year. High numbers for a team playing in a city park.
If the Bears were to build a stadium on the Arlington Heights property, the Billion Dollar Question becomes “who pays for it?” Teams are infamously loathe to pay for their own stadiums, and publicly financed venues are rarely good deals for anyone but the franchise owners. State lawmakers have already spoken out against public financing. This will almost certainly be a legal battle in the coming years should the Bears pursue a move.
Like the “Dallas” Cowboys (coincidentally) in Arlington, the “San Francisco” 49ers in Santa Clara, and the “New York” Giants and Jets in New Jersey, it seems inevitable that the Bears will follow the money to the suburbs. If that happens, the area would likely be in line to host Super Bowls and national championship games. It would also signal the end of a bygone era of landmark pre-war stadiums.
At least one Bears player is in favor of the move: tight end and Arlington Heights native Cole Kmet. “SoFi is pretty nice,” Kmet said about the new state-of-the-art home of the Los Angeles Chargers and Rams. “You could kind of do something like that in Arlington Heights, which would be pretty cool.” For that, and several billion other reasons, odds are that the Bears will clear any legal hurdles necessary to make it happen.
Ben Shrader is a partner at Hart McLaughlin & Eldridge in Chicago, where he serves as Chair of the Chicago Bar Association Sports Law Committee. You can reach Ben at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @BenShrader.