‘Bear Down & Out’: Insightful documentary sums up why Chicago’s on the verge of losing its team

A timely, valuable piece of work, NBC Sports Chicago’s overview is must-see TV for hardcore Bears fans and for anyone in the Chicago area.

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The architecture of Soldier Field (seen in an aerial view in December) blends the past with the more recent past.

Quinn Harris/Getty Images

When USA Today ranked the 30 NFL stadiums last year from worst to first, Soldier Field was 29th, ahead of only FedEx Field. Compared to 21st-century, multi-billion-dollar stationary spaceships such as SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California; Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the Bears’ home field is an anachronistic and ungainly blending of the past and the recent past, with the 2002 renovations gleaming awkwardly atop the iconic base, like a giant shiny party hat plunked atop Lincoln on Mount Rushmore.

It is more than probable now that the ship has sailed on any reboot or expansion or upgrade to Soldier Field, with the Bears having plunked down $197 million to purchase a 326-acre Arlington Park property in the hopes of constructing a state-of-the-art stadium that not only would be home to Chicago’s NFL team but also host top-tier events such as the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four, with an ambitious entertainment complex and residential development also in the mix.

How did we get there? Who’s responsible for what could be one of the most egregious fumbles in Chicago sports and culture history, with the Bears increasingly likely to relocate to Arlington Heights?

‘Bear Down & Out: Chicago’s Team Moves to the Suburbs’

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A documentary premiering Wednesday (and repeating Thursday through Sunday) after postgame shows on NBC Sports Chicago and at 11 p.m. March 12 on WMAQ-Channel 5.

This is the subject tackled in “Bear Down & Out: Chicago’s Team Moves to the Suburbs,” an insightful and journalistically sound documentary premiering Wednesday on NBC Sports Chicago and airing on WMAQ-Channel 5 starting on March 12. Clocking in at a brisk but thorough 50 minutes, “Bear Down …” is a timely, valuable piece of work — must-see TV for hardcore Bears fans and for anyone in the Chicago area.

The doc is parceled out in six easily digestible chapters, with NBC Chicago reporter Phil Rogers taking the lead, and keen insights offered by the likes of NBC Sports Anchor Leila Rahimi, WSCR host and Sun-Times columnist Laurence Holmes, former Bears players Jerry Azumah and Tom Waddle, and former Bears coach Dave Wannstedt among others. In the opening chapter, titled “The Stadium,” Rogers reminds us that “in Daniel Burnham’s original plan of Chicago, there was a stadium on the lakefront. It was originally intended as a municipal gathering place …” and that the Bears didn’t move to Soldier Field until 1971.

Next, we visit SoFi Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, which was built on the site of the old Hollywood Park Racetrack (hmmmm), with sports mogul Stan Kroenke putting up about $5 billion to make it happen. The contrast between SoFi Stadium and Soldier Field is like the difference in animation technology between “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Bears fans might not know what they’re missing — but they’re missing a LOT.

“Bear Down” walks us through the ill-conceived renovation from 2002 (Chicago taxpayers still owe $640 million on that deal) and highlights the contentious relationship between the city of Chicago and the Bears in recent years. When the Bears started discussing the possibility of moving to Arlington Heights, Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a caustic statement that read in part, “This is clearly a negotiating tactic. … Like most Bears fans, we want the organization to focus on putting a winning football team on the field, beating the Packers finally and being relevant past October. Everything else is just noise.” In April 2020, the Bears sent a letter to the Chicago Park District, outlining a plan for sports wagering; it was seven months until they received a response saying it wouldn’t be productive to pursue such an opportunity. As the kids say: SMH.

In July 2022, Lightfoot made a pitch to keep the Bears at Soldier Field, with a proposed $2.2 billion renovation that would include plunking a dome on a 100-year-old facility. Says the seasoned and respected Chicago sports host David Kaplan: “Soldier Field is a dump. To put a dome on top of it means we’ve got a domed dump.”

There are still hurdles to clear before the Bears pack up their shoulder pads and make the move to the burbs. But just as the Dallas Cowboys play in Arlington, Texas, and the New York Giants and New York Jets play in East Rutherford, N.J., and the San Francisco 49ers play in Santa Clara, it seems all but certain the Chicago Bears will be one day holding their home games in Arlington Heights.

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