The Bears might be closer than ever to finally getting their long-desired wish. On Wednesday, after months of speculation, the Bears announced they have entered into a purchase and sale agreement (PSA) with Churchill Downs Inc. to buy the Arlington Park racetrack and the land it sits on in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Ill., about 30 miles northwest of their current home. And while the team has not specifically said it will build a new stadium and entertainment complex on the 326-acre site, it’s not difficult to read between the lines.
“Finalizing the PSA was the critical next step in continuing our exploration of the property and its potential. 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,” Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips said in a statement. “Our goal is to chart a path forward that allows our team to thrive on the field, Chicagoland to prosper from this endeavor, and the Bears organization to be ensured a strong future. We will never stop working toward delivering Bears fans the very best experience. We will continue to provide updates on our progress at the appropriate time.”
The Bears and Soldier Field always have had something of a forced marriage. Until 1970, the NFL team had, for all but the first year of its existence, played its home games at Wrigley Field, home of MLB’s Chicago Cubs. But when the NFL merged with the American Football League, it decreed that all of its teams play in stadiums that seat at least 50,000 fans, and because Wrigley only could squeeze in 46,000 at most for football games, the Bears needed to move.
Initially, the Bears wanted to move their home games to what was then known as Dyche Stadium, the home of Northwestern’s football team that at the time had a capacity of 55,000. (It’s now known as Ryan Field.) But the Big Ten would not allow it, so the Bears turned to Soldier Field in what originally was seen as a temporary move: The original lease with the Chicago Park District, the public agency that owns the stadium, was only for three years with two one-year options, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of upgrades to an aging stadium that already was 47 years old when the Bears moved in.
In the decades since, both the Bears and the city of Chicago have had nearly constant and sometimes competing notions of where the team should play, and most of them did not involve staying at Soldier Field. There has been talk of new stadiums built on the Soldier Field site, new stadiums built elsewhere in Chicago proper, new stadiums in different Chicago suburbs (including Arlington Heights, which former owner George Halas first considered back in 1975), combination stadiums/racetracks/jai alai frontons and even playing home games at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.
Finally, early this century, an agreement was made to renovate Soldier Field, a decision that ultimately pleased no one: The rebuilt stadium was deemed an architectural nightmare — it was delisted as a National Historic Landmark — that still did not solve the team’s problems, namely too few parking lots and garages, too few seats (its capacity of 61,500 is the NFL’s smallest) and too few revenue opportunities for a team playing in a stadium it does not own. Plus, the renovation cost taxpayers $432 million and counting, thanks to debt and interest payments that are still being made.
The Bears’ current lease with the Chicago Park District runs through 2033, and the Chicago Tribune has found that any attempt to end it early will cost the team tens of millions. That means the NFL team probably won’t be moving anywhere in the short term. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has had an antagonistic relationship with the team’s owners, tweeted Tuesday night that her administration “remains committed to continuing the work to keep the team in Chicago” but, in a radio interview Wednesday morning, expressed frustration that the Bears did not seem willing to even negotiate. She said the Bears canceled a meeting with city officials Tuesday.
“Look, we have attempted to understand what their interests are for months, and they have not shared them,” Lightfoot said, per the Tribune.
“I can’t negotiate a deal by myself,” she added.
Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes seems ready to get season tickets, even if a new stadium is at best many years in the future — and might be yet another false start.
“I could not be more excited about the news that the Chicago Bears have signed a Purchase and Sale Agreement to buy the Arlington Park property in our community,” Hayes said in the team-issued statement. “My goal for any redevelopment has always been to put this prime piece of real estate to its highest and best use, and I can’t think of a higher and better use than this one. There is a long way to go as we begin this journey, and many issues for the community to discuss, but the Village is committed to working with the Bears organization and all stakeholders to explore this opportunity for Arlington Heights and the northwest suburban region.”