CHICAGO (CBS) — The Chicago Bears have talked about moving to Arlington Heights numerous times going back decades, but this time, it’s different.
On Wednesday, the Bears confirmed that they have signed a $197 million deal to buy the Arlington International Racecourse, which hosted its last horseraces last weekend.READ MORE: Man Dies After Being Shot In West Garfield Park
As CBS 2’s Jim Williams reported, the Bears are not ready to hire construction crews yet. But the purchase agreement means their days here at Soldier Field could be numbered.
For a century, the Bears have played their home games in the city itself. They shared Wrigley Field with the Cubs from 1921 to 1970, and they have called Soldier Field home since 1971.
“The news yesterday was not unexpected,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Mayor Lightfoot insisted she is not throwing in the towel, but offered no specifics on what she can do to keep the Bears in the city – and out of Arlington Heights.
“I want to talk to them. I want to do what we can,” Mayor Lightfoot said. “I’m a Bears fan first and foremost. I want them to stay in the named city – and if we can keep them here, we’ll keep them here.”
Meanwhile, while the team will still be called the Chicago Bears if they move to Arlington Heights, the city itself will take a financial hit – as hotels and restaurants near Soldier Field see fewer customers. Martin Murch, owner of Burger Bar in the South Loop, said he would see a major loss.
“It’s probably the difference-maker for us on an economic basis, and probably a quarter of a million dollars a year,” he said.
With that economic activity and prestige on the line, Mayor Lightfoot is trying to persuade the Bears to negotiate.
“I’m not going to bargain against myself,” Mayor Lightfoot said. “They’ve got to come to the table, and put their list of asks on the table.”
Despite the purchasing agreement with Arlington Racecourse, the Bears said it’s not a done deal. A statement read in part:
“Much work remains to be completed, including working closely with the Village of Arlington Heights and surrounding communities, before we can close on this transaction. Our goal is to chart a path forward that allows our team to thrive on the field.”
Twenty years ago, Soldier Field was rebuilt from the ground up. Only the historic exterior remained.
Back then, David Doig was chief executive officer and general superintendent of the Chicago Park District, which owns the stadium.READ MORE: 15-Year-Old Critically Wounded, Among 2 Shot In Belmont Heights Online Sale Meetup
“I think the Bears looked at that as a good opportunity, and certainly, they’ve benefited from being on the lakefront and being at Soldier Field over the last 20 years,” Doig said Wednesday.
That rebuild cost $690 million – of which $432 million covered by taxpayers. The Bears had more revenue from many more skyboxes, as well as cash from parking and concessions.
“There were a number of sweeteners that were added to the deal to basically enhance the revenue options for the Bears at that time,” Doig said. “Now, whether that’s a good deal today or not, I don’t know.”
Certainly, the Bears believe it’s not ideal today. With 61,000 seats, Soldier Field is the NFL’s smallest stadium. Much larger football palaces – including the two newest in Los Angeles and Las Vegas – show the Bears a lot more money can be made.
“I think, you know, at the time, it was about $650 million project. That was like top of the market, I mean, back then,” Doig said. “Now you’re seeing stadiums that are like $3 and $4 billion. It’s just the order of that magnitude.”
Burger Bar’s Murch wants to see the Bears stay.
“I’d like to really be able to see the Bears focus on how they can collaborate with the city and really come up with a solution,” he said.
The mayor said if the Bears break their lease – which runs until 2033 – they will have to pay. That would be about $80 million if the lease is broken in the next few years.
“The Bears are making a business decision with that purchase. We’ll see what unfolds there,” Lightfoot said. “We also have to make a business decision here in the city of Chicago.”
It is a balancing act for mayor of a city with strained finances. Meanwhile, the Bears said much more work needs to be done before they “close on this transaction.”
The Bears typically make $75 million a year in ticket sales at Soldier Field. They make much more than that – hundreds of millions of dollars – in NFL TV revenue.
Also, here is something to think about with the Bears when it comes to betting. CBS 2’s Brad Edwards pointed out that just a few months ago, the Bears made a deal with BetRviers – their first deal with a betting sportsbook.
Sports gambling is more popular and more accessible than it has ever been.MORE NEWS: Dixmoor Boil Order Remains In Effect As Crews Continue Work To Identify Source Of Weeklong Water Woes
BetRivers’ majority owner is Churchill Downs, the same group that owns and is selling Arlington International Racecourse – presumably to the Bears.