While Mayor Lori Lightfoot pleads with the Chicago Bears to give her a wish list that would keep the team at Soldier Field for another generation, the Bears appear to be far more focused on building their own stadium in Arlington Heights. But a key question remains about how the franchise would pay for it—and how much it will lean on taxpayers in the northwest suburb to help.
That’s just one of the next steps for the franchise as it works toward a $197.2 million purchase of Arlington International Racecourse and a likely plan to redevelop the site with a venue it could own and operate as it pleases.
While it’s still too early to determine the scale of what the team would build on the 326-acre property and how much it would cost, the prospect of financing a modern football temple is now front and center for a team whose owners have never owned a professional sports stadium and whose family wealth is tied to the franchise itself—which Forbes estimates is worth some $4 billion—unlike the fortunes that many billionaire sports owners have built separately from their teams.
That could mean substantial changes to the Bears’ financial backing or even the McCaskey family’s already-complex controlling ownership as plans for the stadium progress. And it will certainly require officials in the village of Arlington Heights to determine whether traffic congestion, new infrastructure costs and an assortment of incentives they are asked to shell out will be worth allowing the Monsters of the Midway to become the Monsters of the Northwest Highway.
Calculating the cost of building a new stadium in Arlington Heights is difficult, though the reported price tags on National Football League stadiums recently built in single-team cities like Las Vegas, Atlanta and Minneapolis suggest the Bears would have to spend upwards of $2 billion to build such a venue, in addition to the cost of buying the land.
It’s unclear whether the Bears have engaged outside financial partners to help foot the bill for the racetrack acquisition and beyond, but that may not be required to realize their vision, says sports business consultant Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp.
The National Football League would likely shoulder some of the burden through a loan program it has used to help other stadiums land financing, Ganis says, similar to the $500 million loan the league approved to build the $5.5 billion SoFi Stadium that opened last year on a former racetrack outside Los Angeles.
Personal seat licenses and suite sales could also help pay for a significant portion of the cost, as would a naming rights agreement that experts have estimated could generate $10 million to $20 million per year for the Bears—money the team misses out on as a tenant at Soldier Field. Portions of the sprawling Arlington site could also be sold off to other developers that could build housing, restaurants, retail space and other hospitality-focused properties that pair nicely with a stadium.
Then there’s the team’s ability to borrow money against the new contractually-obligated income streams, not the least of which would be the more than $300 million per year that each team will receive from the league’s new collection of media rights deals, according to Forbes. On top of that, owning a venue in Arlington Heights opens up the possibility of including a lucrative in-stadium sports betting operation, something the team has recently started exploring at Soldier Field but gotten pushback on from the Chicago Park District.
“They don’t need a (financial) partner, though that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t take on one,” Ganis says. “But they could do this themselves with traditional government participation for things like infrastructure.”
Some sports economists aren’t so sure. University of Chicago professor Allen Sanderson has his doubts that the notoriously financially conservative McCaskey family has an appetite for a mountain of debt that would likely be needed to fund construction of a new stadium. The team “in some ways is a mom-and-pop store,” he observes, with assets worth far less than the league average.
Also complicating matters is a familiar problem for multi-generational family businesses: Ownership stakes are gradually splintering. After 98-year-old principal owner Virginia McCaskey dies, her controlling stake in the team could be split among the families of her 11 children, leaving Aon founder and prominent Chicago businessman Pat Ryan as the franchise’s largest individual shareholder, according to a 2013 Chicago Tribune report. The possibility of shares in the team going up for sale could factor into plans to finance a new stadium.
A Bears spokesman declined to comment.
Hanging over all of the financing questions is whether Arlington Heights officials will lend a hand. Diana Mikula, assistant village manager at the Village of Arlington Heights, said in a statement that there have been “no requests nor discussions regarding financial commitments” to the Bears, acknowledging that there will be “a lot of opportunity for public discussions as things progress and the village is provided with additional information.”
But taxpayer participation in developing a new stadium is almost inevitable, says Paul Sajovec, who worked for firms that prepared feasibility studies for sports facilities and convention centers before becoming chief of staff for 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack.
Though it’s unlikely that any municipality would come up with cash to help finance a stadium in the current economic climate, public subsidies for pro sports venues in recent years have become more nuanced to obfuscate the cost to taxpayers, Sajovec says. As opposed to selling bonds that saddle taxpayers with a long-standing debt burden, for example, cities can forgo certain revenue streams such as amusement or sales tax revenue, offer property tax rebates or turn to tax-increment financing to build new roads and infrastructure.
“In a real sense, that’s every bit as much a cost to the taxpayer,” Sajovec says, adding that other costs to maintain new roads, provide police and fire protection and help with security at a stadium also stresses public coffers. “You really can’t find an example of a new stadium that’s built without some sort of significant amount of public subsidies and incentives. They just come in all shapes and sizes.”
Sajovec also noted most new stadium developments drastically overestimate their local economic impact, especially NFL stadiums that host just 10 games per year. Winning the Bears can be enticing for any municipality looking to raise its profile, Sajovec says, “but the real questions should be, ‘At the end of the day, how are we better off as a community for having this? What have we gained on a random Tuesday afternoon (without any events)? How are the dynamics better than they are now?”
Greg Hinz contributed.