If their intent was to make a point, the Chicago Bears have accomplished the mission. By winning rights to buy the former Arlington International Racecourse property for $197 million, the Monsters of the Midway have underlined the reality that transforming the team into the Monsters of the Backstretch is a distinct possibility.
But what is possible and what actually will occur are not necessarily the same. While the Bears leaving Soldier Field for Arlington Heights now appears to be at least an even bet, don’t wager your 401(k) quite yet.
Ergo, three things to watch in months to come as drama over the Bears’ eventual home remains a lot more interesting than their production on game day.
Item One: How much blowback will there be in Arlington Heights if the Bears actually try to move in?
Initial media coverage from the northwest suburban community focused on a mix of self-congratulatory hometown boosterism and gold-rush-seeking comments from restaurateurs, barkeeps and the like eager to pull in a bunch of new business. Very understandable.
What, however, happens when the rest of the village figures out that the Bears are talking not just a few convenient tailgates each fall but intense development of hundreds of acres of property into a 365-day-a-year recreation complex filled with crowds, congestion and traffic? Is that what residents really want? We’ll find out.
Item Two has to do the team-owning McCaskey/Halas clan.
In a National Football League of billionaire owners, the family is literally a mom-and-pop operation. To build the Arlington Heights stadium (figure $1.5 billion on the low side), pay off the Chicago Park District lease ($100 million) and develop the rest of the property (who knows), the clan is going to have to either massively dilute its ownership share by bringing in lots of new partners, add a ton of debt to a business that now has little, if any, or do both.
Does this family have that in them? Maybe. The major team shareholder outside of the McCaskeys, insurance mogul Pat Ryan, has a right of first refusal if the team ever goes for sale and has been quietly looking for potential investment partners, inside sources say. Money is cheap right now with low interest rates, the NFL likely will lend the team money if need be and Bears’ fans can be dinged for pricier seat licenses and the like. Beyond that, the current rage among those NFL billionaires is to own their playpens so they can maximize the revenues from ancillary entertainment district shopping, dining, perhaps wagering and more—kind of what the Ricketts clan has done bit by bit around Wrigley Field.
On the other hand, interest rates are rising. Long-suffering Bears’ fans have limits to what they’ll pay. Big government assistance isn’t coming, at least not there. And assuming risk—big, hulking risk, combined with diminished family control over the enterprise—is not the kind of thing the McCaskey family is known for. So we’ll see.
Item Three may be the most important. That’s whether Mayor Lori Lightfoot can come out of her stupor and devise a deal salable to both taxpayers and the team to renew their lease in a renewed Soldier Field. Call it status quo plus.
One key person to watch in that drama is Bob Dunn, who made his name building and rebuilding NFL stadiums and now is pushing the huge One Central mixed-use development on air rights immediately west of Soldier Field. If Dunn can come up with a plan to dome Soldier Field at a reasonable price—I hear he just may be working on that very thing—and improve the team’s cash flow by easing the way for stadium naming rights and some other tweaks, the possibility of a win-win-win exists.
For Lightfoot, there’s the prospect of a major economic boost for the South Side consistent with her economic equity drive. And she’d dodge the “mayor who lost the Bears” label—while also opening up the possibility of hosting a Super Bowl or Final Four. The Bears would get a much-improved home in a world-class location and a big boost in local revenues, all at no real risk to the team. While a lot of seats wouldn’t be added, something like 80% of NFL revenues comes from TV, not seat sales. And Dunn? He saves an anchor for One Central.
I’m not predicting it will turn out that way. But it could. The Bears’ relocation game is somewhere in the first half. There’s lots and lots of playing yet to come.