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City should buy Bears and sell shares to fans, alderperson says

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader, plans to introduce a resolution Wednesday to authorize a feasibility study on “whether it is practical and advisable for the city to pursue the purchase of the Chicago Bears.”

The Chicago Bears unveil two 12-foot, 3,000-pound bronze statues of Hall of Famers Walter Payton and George Halas outside Gate 0 at Soldier Field, Tuesday morning, Sept. 3, 2019.
Ald. George Cardenas (12th) wants Chicago to study buying the Bears to keep them from moving to Arlington Heights.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been urged to pull out all the stops to keep the Bears in Chicago. But does that include the possibility of the city purchasing the team and selling shares to fans, following the Green Bay Packers’ model?

The mayor’s deputy City Council floor leader believes it should — and he’s planning to introduce a resolution Wednesday to get the drive started.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) was undaunted by the fact that Forbes Magazine has said the Bears are worth more than $4 billion, a valuation 16% higher than last year.

Cardenas was equally unfazed by the fact that the Bears have been a family business for generations and that the family, led by 98-year-old matriarch Virginia McCaskey, has shown no interest in selling the team.

A candidate for the Cook County Board of Review, Cardenas simply wants City Hall to be “creative” to keep the beloved Bears in Chicago — and prevent its potential move after the team signed an agreement to buy the 326-acre site of the now-shuttered Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights for $197.2 million.

“The city just acquired a casino. We need these assets to stay in the city. And we have to come up with a way to entice the Bears. If they don’t want to be here, let’s buy them out. I mean — they can’t manage this team. They haven’t managed this team [well] in decades,” Cardenas said of the 3-6 Bears.

“We can definitely find and have a group of investors, including the city, to be able to say, ‘We’ll take it off your hands. Let us do the hard work that needs to be done.’”

Cardenas’ resolution calls on the City Council’s Committee on Special Events, Cultural Affairs and Recreation to “convene a hearing” to authorize a “feasibility study on whether it is practical and advisable for the city to pursue the purchase of the Chicago Bears.”

The resolution notes that there “may be financial or legal barriers to the city acquiring an ownership stake in an NFL franchise — including NFL bylaws regarding ownership and potential issues regarding the city having a stake in a for-profit enterprise or in a gaming position.”

But, it states, “The City Council feels the city should explore every opportunity to keep the Bears in Chicago, even if that means buying the team.”

Cardenas told the Chicago Sun-Times he’s discussed the possibility of municipal ownership with Lightfoot, including the possibility of using “crowd sourcing.” The mayor’s office refused to comment.

The Packers have been publicly owned since 1923. More than 360,000 people have shares in the team, with the last stock sale taking place as recently as 2012. While the corporation is overseen by a board of directors and an executive committee, “shareholders do not receive any dividend on the investment,” the team’s website says.

The team recently announced it was planning another sale of common stock at $300 per share. That would grant owners an invitation to the team’s annual meeting and voting privileges — but no ability to make a profit.

Still, the sales have supported expanding Lambeau Field among other improvements.

But doing something similar here is another matter.

Chicago-based sports marketing expert Marc Ganis branded Cardenas’ proposal a “ludicrous idea.”

The Packers ownership, he noted, was grandfathered in by the league “generations ago.”

“Any concept like that is totally and completely contrary to all of the ownership rules of the National Football League,” said Ganis, who has advised numerous NFL teams on their stadium financing.

Even if the McCaskeys ultimately decided to sell the family business, they might have to get the go-ahead from businessman Andrew McKenna Sr. and insurance magnate Patrick Ryan, who have a 19.6% ownership stake in the Bears, Ganis said. They might also have an option to buy the team.

“If city officials wanted to put their efforts into stopping a move to Arlington Heights, they should be thinking about how to build a new stadium for them within the city limits,” Ganis said.

Veteran sportswriter Lester Munson called a city purchase of the Bears “implausible” — to say the least.

“I’m sure you could get a lot of Bear fans to put up money the way Packer fans do. But that is a one-of-a-kind thing under a bizarre Wisconsin law, and I’m not sure it’s even legally feasible here. You might need legislation in Springfield,” Munson said.

Calling the idea a “pipe dream,” Munson said, “The price is too high, and I’m not sure the city belongs” in the business of owning an NFL franchise.

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall is among those who have urged Lightfoot to pull out all the stops to keep the Bears in Chicago — and not necessarily at Soldier Field.

But he, too, argued that municipal ownership is a bad idea.

“I don’t know where the city of Chicago would come up with ... the $4 billion that is the expected market value,” Msall said.

“A better use of city resources and time would be to come up with additional proposals beyond Soldier Field for the Bears stadium if they [cannot be persuaded] to stay at Soldier Field.”