The Chicago Bears, once again, are threatening to move to the suburbs — a routine that’s just as much a part of the franchise history as Dick Butkus terrorizing an opposing team’s offense or Walter Payton high-stepping across the goal line to score a touchdown.
The threat usually winds up being a bid for the team to get a better Soldier Field lease deal from the city, or some kind of new stadium on the public’s dime. The nearly $700 million renovation of Soldier Field in 2003 was kind of a hybrid between the two.
But the Bears could be serious this time. The team last week put in a bid to buy the Arlington International Racecourse property in Arlington Heights.
We’d love to keep the Bears in Chicago, playing inside the (mostly) historic Soldier Field, the team’s home since 1971. We enjoy the iconic game day, television shots of the stadium with Chicago’s glorious skyline behind it.
And yet, if the Bears want to move to Arlington Heights, let them. Neither city nor state taxpayers should be asked to pay the usual ransom to keep them in town.
Bears ‘to explore every option’
Chicago Bears President Ted Phillips last week confirmed days of speculation that the team had been eyeballing the 326-acre former racetrack, which was placed on the market in February by its owner, Churchill Downs, Inc., for an undisclosed price.
The Bears are among fewer than 10 serious suitors bidding for the site.
“We recently submitted a bid to purchase the Arlington International Racecourse property,” Phillips said in a news release. “It’s our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we’re doing what’s best for our organization and its future. If selected, this step allows us to further evaluate the property and its potential.”
If the deal works out, the Bears could build a stadium to their specifications — certainly one larger than the 61,509-seat Soldier Field, which is the NFL’s smallest capacity stadium — and fill it and its surroundings with all the amenities, parking and sponsorship deals the team and its ownership desires.
New chapter for Soldier Field?
The Bears are locked into their Soldier Field lease until 2033. If they bail before then, the team will be on the hook to the Park District for $5 million a year for the remainder of the agreement.
“This announcement from the Bears comes in the midst of negotiations for improvements at Soldier Field,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. “This is clearly a negotiating tactic that the Bears have used before.”
True. But as the Daily Herald reported last week, the Bears quietly signed a sponsorship deal with Des Plaines’ Rivers Casino — the majority owner of which is Churchill Downs, Inc.
That the Bears would now enter into a deal with the company that can soon select the team’s bid for the Arlington Heights racetrack is no small thing. If nothing else, it shows that Chicago has to seriously think about a post-Bears life for Soldier Field, be it now or a decade down the road.
The Soldier Field reconstruction brought with it two major improvements that could serve the venue well if it must forge ahead without the Bears.
The stadium was reconfigured for professional soccer — the Chicago Fire plays there now — and has hosted world rugby matches. And Soldier Field has become a pretty decent outdoor concert venue, with a notably good sound system.
Elton John’s farewell tour is scheduled to make a stop there next summer. So is country music star Kenny Chesney.
More events like these are what Soldier Field would need, not only to make up for the eight regular-season Bears football dates, but to help rebrand the stadium as a multi-use facility that can command top music acts and sporting events.
Envisioning a life for Soldier Field beyond Bears games also would help move the city away from the temptation to start spending money to keep the team here.
This isn’t the 1970s, 1980s, or even the 2000s, when mayors, political leaders and civic movers and shakers openly feared the loss of a sports franchise would doom the city, so they committed vast fortunes of taxpayer funds to keep that from happening.
Times have changed — or so we hope.
If the Bears leave, Chicago and Soldier Field will survive. Particularly if the city is smart about programming and repositioning the Park District-owned stadium.
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