Failing at football, Bears face a bigger test with a stadium

The pressure is building on a franchise that underperforms financially in one of the NFL’s top markets.

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Chicago Bears President Ted Phillips, left, and Chairman George McCaskey listen during a news conference in 2018.

Chicago Bears President Ted Phillips (left) and Chairman George McCaskey

Getty file

The Chicago Bears at last have had their say. During the news conference last week at which the team announced the firing of its head coach and general manager, the team’s usually quiet top brass did its best to argue it’s still capable of building a winner and of managing a business with a major decision ahead.

And that might be the nicest possible thing to say about the performance by Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips. The reviews were resoundingly unkind.

Others are better suited to comment about gridiron wisdom. My focus was on the Bears’ approach to getting a new stadium, possibly in Arlington Heights. Don’t bet the rent money that it’s going to happen. But the NFL will make certain something happens because one of its charter franchises is in an untenable situation.

Chicago Enterprise bug

As one expert told me, “The Bears are in the third or fourth quartile of league revenue, but they’re in a first-quartile market. It’s a problem the NFL will want them to fix.”

The team’s answer thus far has been to sign a contract to buy the former Arlington International Racecourse for $197.2 million, a 326-acre parcel with plenty of room for activities that go beyond 10 football games a year. McCaskey said Phillips is in charge of the team’s potential move from Soldier Field.

But he also said Phillips, while still involved in big hiring decisions, would be taken out of the loop on football operations. The next general manager, McCaskey said, would report directly to him, not through Phillips.

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A Bears fan registers his opinion during the team’s losing effort against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 20 at Soldier Field.

AP

As a corporate move, it sounded like Phillips was being put on a shelf. But ever the loyalist to the McCaskeys, Phillips put a good face on his assignment, speaking in glowing terms of the prospects in Arlington Heights.

“There’s nothing else like it in Chicagoland,” he said. “So the opportunities — you know, we haven’t even begun to envision what it could be. But we’re hopeful, if we close, that we’ll be moving forward with turning it into a wonderful destination site.” He added that it could be “an entertainment destination with multiple facets to it that I think could really help put Arlington Heights on the map as a destination spot.”

But McCaskey tempered that, emphasizing the complexities of real estate dealmaking and saying “a lot of due diligence” needs to be performed. Such as keeping communications open to the Chicago mayor’s office, with which he’ll be negotiating on Soldier Field.

Some experts in development issues believe the Bears are goners from Chicago, that a custom stadium in Arlington Heights will produce more revenue. But that begs a lot of questions.

This would be a multibillion-dollar venture, and that’s not what the McCaskeys do. They would need partners. Do they go to the suburbs even if it means they cede control of a team that’s been their birthright? Are they counting on a big state tax subsidy? And what about the residents of Arlington Heights, who might not want everything that comes with being “a destination spot?”

Others believe the Bears have a sweet deal in Soldier Field, that adding capacity and maybe a roof to the stadium would cost less than new construction and that the city has more levers to pull for financial incentives, especially the hotel tax, which at least doesn’t hit homeowners unless they stay downtown. In looking to expand its revenue, the Bears have to appreciate that Chicago drew about 60 million visitors a year before the pandemic.

The city could drive a hard bargain with the Bears. Since the renovated Soldier Field opened in 2003, the team’s value has doubled to about $4 billion, according to some estimates. Meanwhile, there’s still about $423 million owed on the bonds sold for that work, according to the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which makes those payments. “That’s not a great equation for the taxpayers,” a source said.

Finally, there’s a curious person on the outskirts of this. It’s investor Bob Dunn, who has a hankering to build a casino as part of a high-rise megacity over the commuter rail tracks west of Soldier Field. He has a powerful interest in enjoying the mayor’s favor and in the Bears staying put. And as president of Landmark Development, he’s been involved in new stadiums for the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. He knows this business and could give someone advice. Dunn has declined requests to talk about Soldier Field.

The bottom line about the Bears in Arlington Heights might be this: “Think of the week McCaskey and Phillips have had,” a development expert said. “They can’t figure out how to hire 10 people who know their heads from their a---- on football. How are they going to figure out a multibillion-dollar, complex real estate development in the suburbs, when the market trends have been moving away from the suburbs?”

It’s early in the game, but quarterback McCaskey is under heavy pressure.

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