Filthy rich teams like the Bears don’t need tax breaks to build a stadium

The Rickettses, owners of the Cubs, ended up using their own money to renovate Wrigley Field and build up the surrounding neighborhood. Why can’t the McCaskeys do the same with their project?

SHARE Filthy rich teams like the Bears don’t need tax breaks to build a stadium
Chicago Bears chairman George McCaskey wants a tax break on land the team bought for a new stadium in Arlington Heights.

The Bears and their chairman, George McCaskey, want a tax break on land the team bought in Arlington Heights for a new stadium.

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

You might not like what the Cubs have done to Wrigleyville, might not like the theme-park vibe to the area around the ballpark, but you can’t say the franchise beat taxpayers over the head to renovate Wrigley Field. Oh, they tried. They asked for $150 million in public assistance, but the city of Chicago said no. In the end, the Ricketts family decided to pay for the work out of its own pockets.

This isn’t to say that the Cubs are somehow nobler than the Bears, who are going from town to town with their hand out these days. Three years ago, Wrigley Field received National Historic Landmark status, which made the Cubs eligible for federal tax credits. I don’t think the Rickettses are history buffs. I think they’re money buffs.

But their story shows that it’s more than possible for a very wealthy sports franchise to use its own money to pay for everything that goes into a stadium project.

The Bears would have you believe that public assistance is the way business is done. They have the verb tense wrong. This is the way business was done. For decades, cities threw themselves at teams that wanted new stadiums. The thinking was that nothing makes a city major league more than having a major-league team. And nothing looks worse than a team taking its ball or puck and moving to another town offering to help pay for a new stadium. It still happens that way in some places, often to the regret of taxpayers who end up footing the bill for years.

The Bears thought that by announcing they’d be paying for the construction of a new stadium by themselves, it would ease all the other negotiations that go with building a massive structure. They picked a terrible time to ask for a tax break on the property they bought in Arlington Heights. There is very little appetite anywhere for tax money going to owners of professional sports franchises.

Chicago and other cities have wised up. The Bears want out of Soldier Field, which taxpayer money helped renovate in 2002. The public will continue to pay for those renovations if the Bears relocate. The problem with Soldier Field is that it can’t provide the revenue streams a new stadium would. That’s what this is about. It’s not about improving the fan experience. It’s not about having more money to attract better players. It’s about making the McCaskey family, owner of the Bears, wealthier.

Now the team is listening to a pitch from Naperville, whose mayor saw an opportunity with the Bears and Arlington Heights disagreeing on the tax appraisal for the site of the proposed stadium. If it walks and quacks like a leverage move by the Bears, then that’s what it is.

In one sense, it’s stunning that the Bears didn’t see this coming. Did they really think everybody in Arlington Heights was going to lie down for them? But in another sense, it fits. The NFL is so used to being king, so used to getting what it wants, that new Bears president Kevin Warren might not have considered the possibility that anyone would balk at a deal. The team believes that the land it bought for a new stadium, the site of the former Arlington International Racecourse, should be assessed at $37 million. The local school districts that use the tax money from the site for things like books, pencils and teacher salaries, argue that the number should be $95 million.

It would be cheap and easy to say that the Bears are trying to steal little Johnny’s milk money, so I won’t.

Please don’t tell me that the McCaskeys lack the necessary funds to build a stadium and pay the taxes for it. Don’t tell me that all their money is wrapped up in operating the Bears. It’s very, very hard to believe that a business valued at $5.8 billion last year (according to Forbes), a business that makes $520 million in revenue annually, doesn’t have cash in its till. But even if that were the case, there are banks and loans for this sort of thing. You know, just like the mortgages regular people carry on their homes.

The economy isn’t great. We all know it. We all feel it. It takes a lot of nerve, or a lot of obliviousness, for the Bears to expect someone else to take a hit for something they want. They argue that the economic benefits of a stadium to a city outweigh whatever they’re asking for in the way of tax breaks. That sort of argument hasn’t held up well in the past. An NFL injury report would list it as questionable.

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