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Bears’ threat to move to the suburbs is powerful — and familiar

When president/CEO Ted Phillips announced Thursday that the Bears put in a bid to buy the Arlington International Racecourse property, it was a reminder that the team has been here before. Literally. On the same piece of land.

Soldier Field is the host site of the city’s newest drive-in movie theater.
The Bears are considering leaving Soldier Field.
Sun-Times file

Unhappy with how Soldier Field compared to the rest of the league’s stadiums, the Bears met with the village president of Arlington Heights to talk about building a stadium there. The Bears’ president said the team had “definite interest” in building a stadium on the Arlington International Racecourse property. Plans for a 76,000-seat stadium were eventually unveiled.

The year was 1975.

When president/CEO Ted Phillips announced Thursday that the Bears put in a bid to buy the racetrack property, it was a reminder that the team has been here before. Literally. On the same piece of land.

Since they moved to Soldier Field, the Bears have leveraged grand suburban plans to convince the city to make improvements. Soldier Field wasn’t the team’s first choice, anyway. In 1970, the year before they moved to the lakefront, the Bears signed a five-year deal to share Northwestern’s stadium, only to have the Evanston plan shot down by the Big Ten.

In 1971, they first flirted with Arlington Heights.

In 1975, they negotiated with Arlington Heights and Elk Grove Village but stayed at Soldier Field after — see if this sounds familiar — the city agreed to improve the lakefront stadium.

In 1995 alone, the Bears teased three potential moves. They announced they held rights to buy land in Hoffman Estates and Aurora — and also considered a stadium project in Northwest Indiana.

In 1998, with two years left on their lease and seeking a Soldier Field renovation, the Bears returned to Elk Grove Village. Eventually, the Bears got what they wanted — a $587 million Soldier Field remodeling in 2002.

Eighteen years after it opened, the stadium feels small and cramped. Because the city owns the stadium, the Bears lack the control that most other professional sports teams take for granted.

The Bears’ latest threat — and Mayor Lori Lightfoot essentially called it that Thursday — is more substantial than those past flirtations. Bidding for property is a loud statement, even if it’s the first of many steps. If the Bears are chosen, the team and Churchill Downs, Inc. will have time to further vet the details before deciding on whether to follow through. While the selection could take weeks, vetting will take months. That’s a long runway for the Bears to negotiate with Lightfoot — but it has an ending in sight.

In 1975, then-vice president Ed McCaskey said the Bears would move if someone else built a stadium “because we can’t afford it.” They’re still renters, but they’re in a different weight class, financially, than they were 46 years ago. Last year, Forbes valued the Bears at $3.53 billion.

In recent years, the McCaskey family has taken steps to shed its once-cheap reputation, paying more than $100 million to renovate Halas Hall and giving Khalil Mack a six-year, $141 million contract that was a record for a defensive player.

Buying land and building a new stadium, though, would be the boldest move in the 101-year history of the Halas and McCaskey ownership. It’s enough to wonder whether the Bears are primed to do something unprecedented — or are executing the latest leverage play in 50 years full of them.