The city of Chicago has thrown its considerable weight this week behind an attempt to keep the Bears at Soldier Field, the NFL team’s base since 1971. The historic stadium, the oldest in the NFL, may very well be in its final days as the Bears ‘ home.
Last fall, the team’s ownership reached a purchase agreement on a sprawling 326-acre site in the Chicago suburbs. The Bears’ purchase is essentially pending although before it becomes final, there are a litany of logistical, financial, and legal loops both sides will need to shore up.
If the purchase is indeed finalized, Bears fans will be in for a massive change. While fans can rely on their team’s quarterback struggles continuing until the end of time, switching homes from a relic steeped in NFL history to a modern facility far from the city’s heart will be an emotional adjustment.
For Chicago residents, it presents logistical challenges as well. The Bears’ proposed new home is 30 miles from Soldier Field in Arlington Heights, near O’Hare airport. It may only be 26 miles from downtown, but as anyone who has braved the perennially clogged I-90 can attest, the ride is often over an hour. But, perhaps crucially, the new location presents a goldmine of financial opportunity for Bears ownership, who does not own the area around Soldier Field.
Every statement from the Bears reiterates their intention to purchase Arlington Park, but the city of Chicago isn’t giving up without a fight. The city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is determined to keep the Bears playing at Soldier Field beyond 2033, when their lease expires (the team could break their lease early if they pay the city an $84m release clause).
This week Lightfoot unveiled three proposals to improve Soldier Field, focused on giving the stadium the option to be domed for year-round use – a useful feature amid Chicago’s brutal winters and sweltering summers. The plans also include revitalizing the surrounding area and adding “floating pavilions” to enhance parking options at a stadium that can be tough to reach by car. The organization may also be allowed to earn revenue from a naming rights deal.
“Not surprisingly, we are doing what we believe is making a compelling case for the Chicago Bears to stay in Chicago. They want a tier-one stadium environment to maximize revenues, and we agree that we are going to keep making the case to the Bears, the NFL and public that a revitalized Soldier Field makes the most economic sense for that storied franchise,” Lightfoot said .
But Lightfoot’s efforts appear to be nothing more than a very desperate Hail Mary. Simply put, Soldier Field has little to offer in the modern NFL, where streams of revenue are considered, by many owners, more of a measure of success than wins and losses. With a capacity of 61,500, Soldier Field is the smallest stadium in the league – so small, in fact, that it’s not eligible to host major events like the World Cup or Super Bowl (Lightfoot’s plans could increase capacity to 70,000). It also received a $600m botched facelift in 2003, which led to the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic dubbing the stadium “The Eyesore On The Lake Shore”. Taxpayers’ appetite for funding further renovations – Lightfoot’s plans would cost anywhere between $900m and $2.2bn – may also be understandably questionable as the cost of living skyrockets and the threat of recession looms. The mayor did not say who would fund the plans, but selling naming rights for the stadium is one possibility.
Despite Lightfoot’s public fight, the Bears continue to move forward with their plans to ditch Soldier Field for Arlington Heights. In March, the Bears hired an architecture firm to help design the potential new stadium. On Monday, they rereleased a statement they had put our earlier this month expressing their determination to move.
“The only potential project the Chicago Bears are exploring for a new stadium development is Arlington Park,” the Bears said. “As part of our mutual agreement with the seller of that property, we are not pursuing alternative stadium deals or sites, including renovations to Soldier Field, while we are under contract. We have informed the city of Chicago that we intend to honor our contractual commitments as we continue our due diligence and predevelopment activities on the Arlington Heights property.”
There is no guarantee that the Arlington Heights purchase will result in a new stadium but that is the likeliest outcome. The McCaskey Halas family, the owners of the Bears, aren’t exactly known for their deep pockets, so a full privately funded stadium a la Stan Kroenke’s SoFi kingdom in Los Angeles seems unlikely. However, if the residents of Arlington Heights help the Bears join the ranks of NFL teams that have incorporated some semblance of public funding (only SoFi, Gillette Stadium, and MetLife Stadium are privately funded), the McCaskeys will be teeming with options for the land they own around the stadium. From naming rights to concerts to major international sporting events to luxurious stadium amenities with equally luxurious price tags to hotels and anything else they care to add to their megaplex, the possibilities are endless.
By exiting Chicago, the Bears would leave a massive void in the town’s vibrant sports scene. But that’s the story of the today’s NFL where last year’s revenue topped $11bn and is tracking to reach $25bn by 2027. The city of Chicago doesn’t stand a chance.