Bears Sign Purchase Agreement for Land for New Stadium

I guess this means it’s all-but-official that the Bears, who have played in Soldier Field since 1971, will be getting a new home:

Jarrett Payton, for those who don’t know, is the late, great Walter Payton’s son. Payton may be the greatest Bear in franchise history, and Jarrett is very well-connected to the Bears organization and the Chicago sports scene in general.

As someone who lives in Chicago and is a Bears fan, this is big news in my world. (Don’t worry; I don’t let my Bears fanhood affect my analysis and opinions of other teams in the NFL. The Bears have been so bad for so long it’s almost impossible to be biased in favor of them at all. I’m just kind of numb to it, and have become more of a general NFL fan. I don’t even really hate the Packers anymore. I’m more jealous of them than anything else… It’s depressing shit being a Bears fan).

Anyway, there have been rumors and rumblings on Chicago sports talk radio for years now that the Bears were thinking about leaving Soldier Field and moving to Arlington Heights, a suburb about a 40-45 minute drive from downtown.

Arlington Heights is the site of a big horse racing track called Arlington Park which recently closed down. The lot upon which Arlington Park sits is a whopping 326 acres, meaning it would be an incredible site to put a new, state of the art football stadium.

The Bears submitted a bid in June to buy the lot, and apparently now they won the bid have signed an agreement to buy the space. While this isn’t absolute and final confirmation that the Bears are moving to Arlington, it’s now gone beyond the usual “this is just a bluff” dismissals, which is how Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot characterized the June news.

The City of Chicago Park District owns Soldier Field, meaning the Bears pay the city $6.3 million a year to rent the stadium for 8 Sundays a year during football season. While this seems like a shitty arrangement, there are actually only 4 teams in the NFL that outright own their own stadiums: the Patriots, the Dolphins, the Redskins and the Panthers. You could also include the Rams and Chargers in that group, as their respective owners are joint stakeholders in a third party LLC that owns SoFi Stadium, although Rams owner Stan Kroenke has a larger stake in the company I guess. Apparently the Rams and Chargers each pay $1 per year in rent.

(I was shocked to learn that Jerry Jones doesn’t even own Jerry World; it’s owned by the city of Arlington, Texas.)

While it’s unclear whether or not the Bears will become the owners of the new Arlington Stadium, my guess is that the McCaskey family is planning to sell the team. They’re one of those families whose entire net worth is derived from the football team–in other words, they probably don’t have enough of their own money to finance the construction of a new, state-of-the-art, SoFi-esque stadium.

I’ve been hearing for a few months now that the McCaskeys are planning on selling the team, which is cause for rejoice among Bear fans everywhere. See, Virginia McCaskey, the current team owner, is 98 years old. She is the daughter of the original owner, founder and longtime coach of the Chicago Bears, “Papa Bear” George Halas, and inherited the team from him when he died in 1983.

Here’s the thing: Virginia, at 98, God Bless her, won’t be around much longer (not to be crude but it’s true; she’s 98). Virginia and her late husband Ed McCaskey have 11 children and 40 grandchildren.

So who gets the team when she passes away? No one knows what’s in her will outside of her inner circle of family and business associates, but the bottom line is that there’s a hell of a lot of potential heirs to the throne we’re dealing with here. Her son, Michael McCaskey, was team Chairman for a long time but he died last year at the age of 77. Now, her other son George McCaskey is Chairman of the team. Presumably, the franchise would pass to George.

But the rumors are that given the size of the McCaskey clan, there are some in the family that are pushing to sell the team once Virginia passes away. I’m sure not all of them want to sell the team, but splitting up a team 11 ways is inevitably going to get messy. I’ll just quote from the May article talking about the McCaskey family selling the team:

But there’s existing board members that will have a say in any sale: Pat Ryan.

Even if you don’t know of Pat Ryan, you likely recognize his name from Northwestern University, where his name adorns both the football field (Ryan Field) and half of the basketball arena (Welsh-Ryan).

Ryan, along with partner Andy McKenna, bought in to the Bears in the ‘80s and, according to O’Donnell, hold a right of first refusal to buy more shares:

Ryan, 83, is the favorite. The billionaire businessman — in partnership with 91-year-old Andy McKenna — owns 19.7% of the Bears. He also holds the right-of-first-refusal as “primary investor” if any of the McCaskey stock comes up for sale.

Ryan, founder and retired CEO of Aon, is worth around $2.6 billion and could easily find some investors to make a buying bid that would likely include his sons Pat Jr. and Rob (not THAT Rob).

Next in line would be Neil Bluhm, the casino magnate with ties to Churchill Downs, which owns the Arlington Park site. Bluhm is reportedly worth $6.8 billion and is already a minority owner of both the Bulls and White Sox.

Bluhm makes the most sense in a bring the Bears to Arlington scenario.

Last mentioned is Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and richest man in the world. O’Donnell reports that the NFL has more interest in Bezos than vice versa but the Chicago Bears could be an interesting asset to a man who has everything.

Let’s get the Bezos stuff out of the way first: if Jeff Bezos wanted to purchase an NFL franchise, it would be difficult to stop him. He’s the richest man in the world, and could put in an outrageously un-matchable bid if he were truly determined to do so.

He could also build the greatest sporting arena the world has ever seen with his own money.

But Bezos buying the Bears is just speculation at this point. I don’t know that he’s said anything about owning an NFL franchise. It’s all just internet forum and blog speculation at this point.

Plus, as the excerpt above notes, Pat Ryan has the right of first refusal should the McCaskey family ever decide to sell some or all of their stake in the team. Which means that no matter how rich Bezos is, if Pat Ryan wants to buy the McCaskeys out, he has the right to do so and Bezos is at his mercy. Although I’m sure if he really wanted to, Bezos could just make both sides “an offer they can’t refuse” with an ungodly sum of money and get majority ownership of the team. But still, maybe to Pat Ryan, who is already a billionaire, you can’t put a price tag on an NFL franchise. There’s only 32 of them in the world, and they don’t hit the market very often.

Obviously if the Bears go up for sale, there will be plenty of potential buyers. It’s not even worth spending more time speculating on how that will all shake out because I have no idea.

The important thing here is that the Bears have taken what appears to be a decisive step to move out of Soldier Field and into the Arlington Park land space.

As I said above, Arlington Park is a whopping 326 acres, while Soldier Field sits on a lot that is only about 17 acres. 326 acres is even bigger than the lot SoFi Stadium is on.

This means that with a move to Arlington, the Bears could build not only a state-of-the-art stadium with a retractable roof, but a new practice facility and team headquarters on the same lot. They could build up the area around it and make it into a “Bears Village” type thing complete with a tailgate lot, stores, hotels, bars, restaurants and other attractions, similar to what the Patriots have going on in Foxboro–called Patriot Place. Check it out, it’s pretty awesome:

This is becoming the standard for modern sports arenas. When the Ricketts family bought the Cubs over a decade ago, they also bought up much of the surrounding real estate in the Wrigleyville neighborhood and turned into a big tourist attraction with restaurants and stores and stuff, albeit on a much smaller scale.

SoFi (which was also built on a former horse track) is the same kind of thing: it’s part of a larger entertainment complex called Hollywood Park, which is described as a “master-planned neighborhood”:

The stadium is located in Hollywood Park, a entertainment complex and master-planned neighborhood named after the former horse racing track that sat on the site. Hollywood Park consists of over 8.5 million square feet (790,000 m2) that will be used for office space and condominiums, a 12-screen Cinepolis movie theater, ballrooms, outdoor spaces for community programming, retail, a fitness center, a luxury hotel, a brewery, high-scale restaurants and an open-air shopping and entertainment complex. Immediately adjacent to the stadium is Rivers Lake with a waterfall and fountain. The first establishment to open in Hollywood Park was the new Hollywood Park Casino, which opened on October 21, 2016.

Hollywood Park is also the home of NFL Los Angeles, the league’s West Coast headquarters. Previously based in Culver City, a 200,000-square-foot (19,000 m2) building next to the stadium houses office operations for hundreds of NFL Media employees that work for NFL RedZone, and the NFL app. The building is also the home of NFL Network and many other department’s supporting the league’s media and business operations. In addition to office and studio space of which there are five soundstages, the facility features NFL Media’s first outdoor studio and space to host studio audiences. The NFL Los Angeles campus opened on September 8, 2021.

SoFi is so much more than just a stadium. It’s basically a full-blown miniature city unto itself complete with condos (i.e. people literally live there), a brewery, and a movie theater among other things. And obviously when football isn’t in-season, SoFi is a massive concert venue.

The Bears are aware of all this.

SoFi is now the standard for big-market football teams. And the Bears, unlike both the LA and New York teams, have Chicago all to themselves.

I think something resembling SoFi is part of the Grand Plan for the Chicago Bears going forward. It will take the Bears and bring the whole organization into the 21st century (hopefully).

Soldier Field is the smallest stadium in the NFL at only 61,500 seats. It’s not bad on the inside, as it was renovated significantly in 2003, but it’s just small compared to other stadiums in the NFL. Consider that Jerry World can handle around 100,000 viewers.

And it really can’t get any bigger, either. It has already been renovated to basically the maximum possible extent.

Given the fact that it was renovated, as I said, it’s not crappy or old or anything on the inside, but it’s definitely very outdated when you compare it to some of the other stadiums that have been built in recent years. Soldier Field, while historic, was built all the way back in 1924!

In baseball, it’s part of the attraction to go to an old stadium like Wrigley or Fenway. That’s actually a positive in baseball–it makes the experience more authentic, and those stadiums have basically taken on personalities of their own.

And in college football, too, it’s a positive to have a stadium with a long history. Granted, most of the big-time college football stadiums can hold 90k+ fans, and some of them are even over 100k.

But in NFL football, having an old (sorry: “historic”) stadium is not really an attractive feature. Fans want the biggest, best and newest. It’s hard not to look at stadiums like SoFi, Allegiant in Las Vegas, Mercedes Benz in Atlanta, Jerry World, and the Vikings’ new stadium and not feel like the Bears are living in the past here.

While Soldier Field will always have a place in Bears fans’ hearts, it just doesn’t get the job done anymore when other teams have brand new stadiums that completely blow Soldier Field out of the water. Being “historic” just isn’t enough anymore.

Plus, Soldier Field also holds the Chicagoland area back in a lot of ways. For one, it can never host a Super Bowl. It’s too small. It can never host a Final Four, or the Big Ten Championship, or any other major sporting event.

But if the Bears build a brand new stadium with a retractable roof in Arlington, Chicago will get a Super Bowl down the road. It’ll get a Final Four. It’ll get college football bowl games. And it might even take the Big Ten Championship away from Indianapolis–after all, the Big Ten headquarters is located in Chicago.

The difference is that Indy’s stadium is new, and nice and it has a retractable roof. When you have a retractable roof, you can host big events. Once the Vikings built their new stadium, they got a Super Bowl a few years after. Detroit hosted a Super Bowl in 2006. That’s because those stadiums are indoors. New York is the only cold-weather Super Bowl we’ve ever seen back in 2014. And Soldier Field is way too small to host a Super Bowl anyway.

The Bears can break their lease with the Park District in 2026 for $84 million. Otherwise, it expires in 2033. But given that a new stadium will cost several billion, that $84 million is chump change and will probably be rolled into the cost of the new stadium’s financing agreement.

5 years should be enough time to get the ball rolling on the new stadium out in the burbs. The City of Chicago will be more than happy to take the $84 million windfall from the Bears.

If indeed the Bears are moving to Arlington, it’s a great move. Bring this franchise into the 21st century.

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