(670 The Score) To better understand what the Bears placing a bid to buy Arlington Park is, it helps to fully grasp what it isn’t.
It isn’t a negotiating ploy intended to sweeten terms of the team’s lease at Soldier Field, a home the Bears clearly know they've outgrown.
It isn’t thinking small or going cheap, despite Chicago’s reflex to place all things related to the McCaskeys into one of those two categories.
It isn’t a bad way to ultimately get what the Bears want and Chicagoland deserves – a state-of-the-art football stadium worthy of the NFL’s charter franchise in the league’s third-largest market, a structure that's capable of attracting a Super Bowl, an NCAA championship game, Finals Fours and perhaps even a second NFL team.
This is an exciting time for the Bears, on and off the field. This is the Bears potentially seizing a rare opportunity, an old-fashioned family business finally prioritizing progress and the future over tradition and the past. This is like chairman George McCaskey trading in his Honda Accord for a Tesla, breaking news on TikTok instead of press releases, embracing change after too many years of clinging to the status quo.
This is big, bold and the best method to maximize the value of a franchise Forbes estimated was worth $3.5 billion, a number that would increase significantly the minute the Bears purchase the 326-acre property in Arlington Heights. This is a smart step in the right direction toward the Bears owning their own stadium, something they remarkably never have done in the franchise’s 102-year history. This possibility seems too real and makes too much sense for the next generation of Bears fans – not to mention dollars for the next wave of McCaskeys – to dismiss it the way Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot did with an overly rash response last week involving some wisecrack about the Packers.
Another clue piqued everyone’s curiosity Tuesday: The Bears announced a multi-year partnership with BetRivers and Rivers Casino. Hmmmm. Churchill Downs, which owns the land the Bears bid for in Arlington Heights, is the majority owner of Rivers Casino. It wasn’t that long ago the Bears were resisting business relationships with potential gambling-related advertisers, yet here they are now, about a decade later, signing sponsorship deals that make symmetry easy to imagine if they complete this landmark transaction. Nothing would offer a steady flow of revenue in the area better than a casino affiliated with the Bears outside a modern, retractable-roof stadium.
And that stadium figures to cost somewhere between $2 billion and $4 billion, based on educated guesses from several experts within the professional sports industry. SoFi Stadium, which the Rams and Chargers opened in 2020 in Inglewood, Calif., represents the most expensive NFL stadium at $4.9 billion. Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, where the Raiders play, cost $1.9 billion. The next home of Bears, whether it’s in Arlington Heights or along a new site on the lakefront, figures to fall somewhere in between.
Whatever happens next, the Bears appear to understand what many of us realized years ago about Soldier Field. It limits the Bears in ways that have nothing to do with divots, odd architecture or parking space. America’s most passionate football city shouldn’t have to watch its NFL team play in the league’s smallest stadium. Marc Ganis, the founder of Sportscorp, was the latest to agree with that premise Tuesday when he appeared on the Mully & Haugh on 670 The Score.
"I don’t believe you can renovate Soldier Field to the degree it would be a first-class stadium for the next generation," Ganis told us.
Ganis didn’t rule out the feasibility of building a stadium just south of Soldier Field near McCormick Place, an ambitious idea that would keep the Bears in the city. That sounds ideal, actually. Who wouldn’t love to see the Bears keep playing along the lakefront in a new stadium? But given all the problems confronting Chicago, could local government officials justify a project like that? Would the Bears prefer an alternate site within city limits to the Arlington Heights option? Those are among the many pressing questions only time can answer.
Another popular one is what the Bears might be called if they move. The Chicagoland Bears? The Chicago Bears of Arlington Heights? While it makes good fodder for sports talk shows and happy hour arguments, consider that 11 of the 32 NFL teams play outside city limits yet still bear the name of the city they represent. The Dallas Cowboys play in Arlington, Texas. The New York Jets and Giants play in East Rutherford, N.J. The Buffalo Bills play in Orchard Park, N.Y. You get the idea. It’s hard to imagine the Chicago Bears being called anything but the Chicago Bears, no matter how many billable hours lawyers accrue coming to that conclusion.
We do know it could take some legal maneuvering to extricate the Bears from their lease with the Chicago Park District that runs through 2033. If the Bears break it for "improper relocation," the Park District would be entitled to 150% of the remaining financial obligations, per the terms of the lease, according to a source who has seen it. Reports estimate the Bears pay the CPD between $8 million and $9 million per year, which would amount to around $150 million if they bolt early for another site. While exorbitant, a financial penalty less than $200 million hardly seems like it would deter a franchise prepared to spend billions on a project that represents all that this venture would to the Bears and the McCaskey family. It could be classified under the overall cost of building a new stadium.
How the Bears plan to finance their next home will be fascinating. The NFL lent the Rams $500 million for SoFi Stadium and figures to be as willing to help the Bears, especially if the league shrewdly considers the possibility of a second team in Chicago that could open the revenue stream even wider with an additional 10 events per year. The McCaskeys aren’t as wealthy as fellow NFL owners like Jerry Jones and Arthur Blank or Stan Kroenke, the billionaire behind the Rams' move. The McCaskey family always could sell off pieces of the team to minority ownership groups while maintaining controlling interest to create the capital necessary to fund the project.
The possibility of public funding to finance a new stadium likely will meet understandable resistance.
Of the 32 NFL teams, 28 used public financing to build their current stadiums. Renovation of Soldier Field in 2002 saddled local taxpayers with a $437-million burden. Consider that a tough lesson learned. Ganis mentioned the possibility of a Tax Increment Financing district if the Bears relocate to Arlington Heights as a possibility. Whatever happens, the only guarantee is a political battle as spirited as any Bears-Packers game. Lightfoot already lashed out impulsively in a tweet, adding little but emotion to the equation. Gov. J.B. Pritzker reacted to Bears team president Ted Phillips’ tweet last Friday by saying at least the team would be staying in Illinois. It was a telling difference in tone.
Can a state with so many other budget concerns afford to make it easier for a $3.5-billion corporation to buck tradition and relocate? Given the potential windfall for everyone involved, can the state of Illinois afford not to?
It all sounds familiar to Bears fans of a certain age, an echo of the past. It’s well-documented the Bears have flirted with the idea of leaving the lakefront before, many times, from Hoffman States to Gary, Ind.
That was then. This is now.
Now, it isn’t the same sports world, locally or nationally. Now, the NFL never has been this healthy, with the potential reward for the Bears worth any risks involved in relocating.
If this time feels different, maybe consider it is.