What goes on behind the scenes as the Chicago Bears monitor a move from Soldier Field to Arlington Heights? And what could this move cost?
“Look, Soldier Field was fun. There were some good moments, more losing than winning. But you have to modernize,” said David Kaplan of NBC Sports Chicago. He says the Bears are at a crossroads.
Worth more than $5 billion, the Bears are the fifth most valuable team in the NFL, according to Forbes. But Soldier Field is the smallest stadium in the league, and their lake lease expires in 2033. Now their eyes are on a huge prize: a new multi-billion dollar home in Arlington Heights.
“I think the Bears want to control everything, have concerts and conventions and Final Fours and Big 10 title games,” Kaplan said.
In September 2021, the Bears began their 50th season at Soldier Field. That same month, they signed a $197 million deal to buy 326 acres that housed the former Arlington International Racecourse.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, NBC 5 Investigates obtained communications between Arlington Heights officials and anyone using a Bears email address.
The paper trail began with a letter from Mayor Thomas Hayes to George McCaskey on March 4, 2021, expressing the team’s interest in the property. He said the village was working to find a destination for it “worthy of the legacy of the track” and that he hoped to discuss how they “could work together to build something special there”.
Since that day, their communications have painted a picture of partnership—fully coordinated messages and, as Bears president Ted Phillips put it, shared excitement at “bringing our vision to life.”
Contrast that with the team’s relationship with the city of Chicago, which the Bears are trying to keep and, as Phillips noted in an email, the news of the deal to buy the Arlington Heights property before they or the northwestern suburb. had the chance to announce it.
But, as Phillips told the mayor of Arlington Heights a month earlier, the Bears were prepared and even anticipated the possibility. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the leak or the move. The Bears have said that although they have a contract to buy the land, they will not explore alternative stadium locations, including the option to stay where they are.
“I think the city underestimated the bears,” Kaplan said. “And then when they come out and give you a statement that, ‘We’re not even looking at anything about Soldier Field, all we’re looking at is that plan,’ it tells you where their head is.”
The emails show that the Bears have asked Arlington Heights officials to notify them of public record requests — much like those of NBC’s 5 Investigates — indicating that the team is very closely monitoring all questions about the potential development. keeps an eye on.
Records also show that Arlington Heights officials have organized stakeholder meetings for the Bears with chambers of commerce, school districts, and surrounding suburbs such as Schaumburg, Palatine and Elk Grove Village, among others.
Reached by phone on Thursday, Hayes said those meetings should give stakeholders the opportunity to review preliminary plans before making them public, engage those organizations and communities in the process, and address any preliminary concerns they may have. to take.
The Bears have presented the move as a win for all, saying the development will generate $1.4 billion in economic impact annually, including $51 million in tax revenue for Illinois each year. When asking for comment, a Bears spokesperson declined to share more details about their methodology and how they achieved those projections. Hayes said the team has also not shared that information with the village, which plans to conduct its own analysis of the potential economic impact of the development.
But University of Chicago professor Allen Sanderson, an expert in sports economics, is questioning the Bears’ numbers.
“Take any estimate a team or a chamber of commerce gives you as to how much this will be worth… Take the number they give you and move the decimal one to the left. And you’re probably pretty close,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson was part of Chicago’s working group to revive the Museum Campus. He said that wherever you place them, stadiums come with a lot of risk – and little financial benefit.
“The two things you don’t want to build on a valuable piece of real estate are a cemetery and a football stadium,” he continued. “Those two things are just economic losers.”
Sanderson said part of the reason is that football stadiums have low occupancy rates and compete against each other to host a limited number of events.
“There will only be about one Super Bowl a year. There will only be about one NCAA championship,” he said. “It’s not like the NCAA is going to play twice as many games just because you have a different stadium. So you’re still going to have to compete with everyone else in the country for that.”
Another challenge? The way fans interact with the game has changed as technology has improved, Sanderson said.
“The NFL is painfully aware that going to a football game is just less attractive than it used to be,” he said. “You have an 80-inch color flat screen TV with some incredible technology in it that makes watching football at home a much more attractive option.”
The Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas cost about $2 billion, while the Rams Stadium in Los Angeles cost about $5 billion, experts estimate. The Bears say they will not ask for taxpayers’ money to build the stadium themselves, but they do want public funding for infrastructure and other parts of the development.
Both the mayor of Arlington Heights and the Bears said that when it comes to how much public funding the team will seek, they haven’t discussed numbers — and they don’t plan to do so until after the Bears close on the property, which is what could happen by the end of this year or early 2023.
“Certainly our residents are concerned and, you know, my village council is concerned, and I, in terms of what our financial commitment might be to developing this property,” Hayes said. “Our ultimate goal is to make sure it’s a win-win situation for both the Bears and the village of Arlington Heights, so you know, we’re not going to do anything that will bankrupt our village or our residents.”
This is all because twenty years ago, taxpayers are still paying off their share of the Soldier Field renovation, more than $600 million.
“You have to keep your eyes wide open with this. Everyone is talking about the benefits, but there are costs… How much are you willing to pay for this facility?” said Sanderson. “If we pay too much for the Bears, that means we’re paying too little for anything else, whether it’s public schools or security or some other community service. These things all cost money.”
With so much at stake, what are the chances that this move will not go through?
“Look, I don’t think Mayor Lightfoot had any chance of keeping this team,” Kaplan said. “It’s not her fault. It’s business, man. It’s not for the faint of heart and the Bears are going to make a great business move that should take their franchise to the next level. Will it win football games now? viewed.”