Is a Bears move to Arlington Park realistic? Other NFL towns show what has to happen
Legendary Chicago Bears owner George Halas drew rousing applause in 1975 when he spoke of his beloved football team moving from Soldier Field to the suburbs.
"I hope and pray that 1977 will find the Bears contending for a title in a new stadium in Arlington Heights," he said to members of the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce.
A new stadium proposed for the Arlington Park site didn't happen then. And it didn't happen 10 years later when Michael McCaskey, Halas' grandson, raised the possibility of NFL football at the racetrack in the months after the devastating fire there in 1985.
Thirty-five years later, talk about the Bears moving to Arlington Park is back.
As Arlington Heights officials broach the idea of another run at a stadium -- and Bears officials resist denying rumors about a move -- what makes this effort different from those of the past? Is it realistic to think the Bears would follow the lead of NFL franchises such as the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Chargers and Rams by trying to thrive in the suburbs?
Who would pay for a stadium estimated to cost around $5 billion, and how would the Bears remove themselves from a Soldier Field lease with the Chicago Park District that runs until 2033?
In addition to the potential financial risks, there's a chance Bears officials are using talk of a move to negotiate a better lease deal at Soldier Field. But the potential rewards for the village are glaring: an NFL franchise, Super Bowls, Final Four basketball games and the chance at massive tax revenues if the project is planned correctly.
Experts acknowledge the challenges are many. But if the proper players line up with a drive to make it happen, a state-of-the-art stadium in Arlington Heights is a possibility.
Unless Churchill Downs Inc., which owns Arlington Park, sells to another horse racing entity or a sale falls through, this is expected to be the final season for the iconic venue that's hosted horse racing since 1927. The group set a June 15 deadline to submit initial offers.
When asked about the choice between continued horse racing or building a Bears stadium at the 326-acre site, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said, "They're both on the table for me." Bears Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Scott Hagel didn't deny an interest in a move, telling the Daily Herald, "Our focus continues to be around safely returning fans to Soldier Field for the 2021 season."
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made her intentions clear to keep the Bears in Chicago, saying the city remains engaged with Bears officials about Soldier Field issues. She also pinned hopes on the Bears' lease by saying "the NFL doesn't let any teams break their leases."
Stanford professor emeritus Roger Noll, an economist and author of a book titled "Sports, Jobs and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums," disagreed with Lightfoot's assessment.
Based on his research, teams will find a way to break a lease if it's to their benefit.
"Put it this way," Noll said. "If you've got a lease you can't break, you didn't do a very good job negotiating it."
By the time a new stadium could be built, perhaps five years down the road, it will be much easier for the Bears to buy their way out of the shorter term remaining on the lease. Noll also said the reconstruction of Soldier Field, completed in 2003, will be more than 20 years old by then and the Bears -- like other NFL teams have done -- could escape the lease by arguing the stadium has outlived its usefulness.
"Almost no stadiums last as long as the lease," Noll said. "If a team doesn't get a new stadium or a major renovation of the old stadium within 25 years, it's gone."
The price tag
SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, where the Chargers and Rams played their first season in 2020, cost an estimated $5 billion to build. But with a billionaire owner such as the Rams' Stan Kroenke, money was no object for the site southwest of downtown Los Angeles.
It's a different situation with the McCaskey family because the Bears' owners don't have such deep pockets.
Patrick Ryan, CEO and founder of the Ryan Specialty Group, owns about 20% of the Bears and is worth an estimated $3.5 billion, according to Forbes. Ryan, who declined to comment for this story, showed his penchant for big ideas by leading the push for Chicago to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, but he hasn't indicated a position on a new stadium at Arlington Park.
SoFi Stadium was built on the former site of Hollywood Park racetrack, presenting a solid comparison to Arlington Park. According to Noll, the reason SoFi Stadium is in position to be financially successful is the mixed-use development also being built on the property.
Noll believes a stand-alone stadium is no longer a realistic option for NFL franchises because a $5 billion stadium can't be financed by eight football games a year and the random big-name concert. Year-round revenue must be part of the package.
Although Democratic state Rep. Mark Walker, who represents much of Arlington Heights, said he "probably would support" public funding for a stadium, it's unlikely the state, the Bears or Arlington Heights officials would be willing to foot the stadium cost. Noll said any potential financier would demand residential, retail, light industrial or something else on the purchased property to bring a constant stream of money.
"The attractiveness of that can be sufficient that an extra billion for a football stadium isn't much," Noll said. "Most cities aren't willing to spend hundreds of millions on a new stadium. But they are willing to rezone things and provide infrastructure and tax breaks for massive developments around a stadium, which makes it attractive for whoever is financing it."
There's a reason the Bears keep looking elsewhere for a stadium option. The reconstruction of Soldier Field created the smallest stadium in the NFL with a capacity of 61,500 fans, and the ripple effect means fewer tickets sales and less concessions revenue for the franchise.
Access to the lakefront stadium is difficult, and not just because the eastern path is obviously blocked by Lake Michigan. Traffic is dismal on game days, and train hubs for many incoming suburbanites are three miles from Soldier Field.
An 80,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof at Arlington Park -- with nearby highways, a Metra train station within walking distance and potential for large parking lots -- solves many of those problems. Not only would it bring the Bears, but based on other NFL stadiums built in recent years, it'd soon be the site of a Super Bowl, college bowl games, Final Four basketball and other major events.
The landscape of Glendale, Arizona, a city just northwest of Phoenix, completely changed in 2006 when State Farm Stadium became the new home of the Cardinals. Built near Gila River Arena, home of the NHL's Arizona Coyotes, the new stadium quickly meshed with the Westgate Entertainment District of movie theaters, arcades and restaurants.
The topper was the state's largest casino, which was built in 2015 just a couple of miles north of State Farm Stadium.
Glendale City Manager Kevin Phelps has a laundry list of development projects that have sprung up since the stadium was built, and even more developments are in the planning stage. He can't imagine the city without it and the tax revenue it's helped create.
An Arizona State University study from 2015, in the wake of State Farm Stadium hosting the 2015 Super Bowl, indicated the region received a $700 million jolt of revenue for the year because of the Super Bowl and other events.
"The exposure that State Farm Stadium has brought to Glendale is very measurable, obviously," Phelps said. "The key thing for us has been leveraging the opportunities presented by the stadium."
While the 326 acres at Arlington Park may seem like an immense amount of land, Phelps stressed how quickly the acreage fills up just with parking. Unlike the vast area around State Farm Stadium, the Arlington Park footprint is locked in by surrounding residential neighborhoods.
The Arlington Park site is viable for an NFL stadium, Phelps believes, based on its easier access compared to Soldier Field. But whatever the village would decide to place around the stadium to bring in additional revenue, it must be executed meticulously.
Glendale city officials, for example, added residential neighborhoods to the area so the entertainment establishments would be frequented at night and on weekends when no game is in town. They added office space so workers would patronize the restaurants in the daytime and not take up parking at night.
"If you're not able to capture benefit in a meaningful way outside of the football games, it'll be an expensive proposition," Phelps said. "We're seeing tremendous growth in and around the stadium, kind of creating this sports and entertainment hub. I think that's the future where these kinds of venues are going."
The history lesson
Former Arlington Heights Village Trustee Marty Cawley, who served for eight years in the 1970s and 1980s, remembers the first time the Bears came calling. And the second time.
"Basically, they just used Arlington Heights to get a better deal in Chicago," Cawley said.
He believes the Bears could be at it again for a third time to get a better lease deal at Soldier Field. Even though the Bears received better terms with stadium concessions and ticket revenue after the reconstruction, they still have room to barter a more lucrative deal on something like parking revenue.
Based on his own decades of experience, Cawley advises current village officials to proceed with caution.
"It's a whole different board and a whole different attitude," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of money to be made and they shouldn't allow themselves to be pushed around on it."
Noll echoes the sentiment, pleading with Arlington Heights officials not to be drawn into a bad deal by the lure of getting an NFL franchise. He says too many other cities have been burned into regretful decisions on stadiums based on unfulfilled promises of development and revenue.
"Cities now can look back at the last 30 years and they see that the promise of economic development didn't happen," Noll said. "They can learn from those lessons."
Every opportunity for the prized parcel must be examined closely, Noll said, and the best should be chosen regardless of prestige.
As exciting as it'd be for Arlington Heights to create a new home for the Bears, the village can't afford to be blinded by stadium lights.
"This site is an enormously valuable asset," he said. "Arlington Heights needs to do what's best for Arlington Heights, not the Bears."