Bears move closer to leaving Soldier Field for the suburbs

NFL Destination Football

CHICAGO (AP)The Chicago Bears took a major step toward moving out of their longtime home at Soldier Field – one of the most recognizable stadiums in the United States – and into the suburbs by signing a purchase agreement for Arlington Park about 30 miles northwest of the city.

”We are excited to have executed a Purchase and Sale Agreement for the Arlington Park property,” Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips said in a statement Wednesday. ”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.”

Churchill Downs Incorporated, which owns the property officially known as Arlington International Racecourse, announced that the sale price was $197.2 million.

At a press briefing, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she will ”do what I can to keep (the Bears) here in the city of Chicago and I don’t think the door has closed by any means.”

But she said she first needs to hear from the team, saying Bears officials have declined to meet with her office, most recently as Tuesday when the team canceled a planned meeting with city officials.

”The bottom line is they’ve got to come to the table,” she said.

Lightfoot, who said the city is prepared to work out a deal that maximizes revenue for both the team and the city, also made clear that if the Bears do decide to move, the price tag of the land in Arlington Heights may not be the only thing the Bears pay for.

”I know they’ve got a contract with us that runs through 2033 and as I told (team chairman) George McCaskey, I’m not about breaking that contract, and if they want to get out of it early, they’re going to have to pay us for it.”

The statement released by the Bears does not include any mention of how the team plans to finance a stadium or how much a new stadium would cost, but Lightfoot pointed out that the two newest NFL stadiums – the home of the Las Vegas Raiders and the stadium shared by the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers – were both ”$4 billion-$5 billion ventures.”

The Bears, who have played at the lakefront stadium since 1971 after moving from Wrigley Field, have raised the possibility of moving over the years. One big factor is that the stadium, which is owned by the Chicago Park District, holds fewer fans – 61,500 – than any other stadium in the NFL.

In those years, the Bears have watched other teams leave their homes for new, shiny ones – some outside the cities, and even the state, where they spent decades. The New York Giants and the New York Jets now play in New Jersey, the Rams have bounced from Los Angeles to St. Louis and back again, and Las Vegas is only the latest home of the Raiders, who have moved from Oakland to Los Angeles, back to Oakland and now Las Vegas.

Lightfoot seemed to recognize that moving is a distinct possibility for the Bears. ”Life goes on,” she said.

If the Bears do move, they would be able to develop more than 300 acres around the stadium with dining, shopping and entertainment – something other teams such as the Rams, Chargers and Raiders have done to add revenue.

It would also be the latest chapter in the long and sometimes controversial history of Soldier Field.

When the Bears moved to Soldier Field from Wrigley Field, the longtime home of the Chicago Cubs, in 1971, Soldier Field already had a storied history.

It was the site of the 1927 boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney that became known as the ”Battle of the Long Count” after Dempsey failed to go to a neutral corner immediately after knocking down Tunney, giving Tunney time to recover and ultimately win the fight.

It has hosted rock concerts and speeches by such luminaries as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.

But it has been associated most closely with the Bears, both when it was home to some truly awful teams as well as the storied 1985 team that won the franchise’s only Super Bowl.

The stadium itself has made its share of headlines. After playing the 2002 season at Champaign’s Memorial Stadium – the home of the University of Illinois – while Soldier Field underwent a $690 million renovation, the Bears returned to a home where boos could be heard both for the team on the field and the stadium itself because it looked something like a spaceship that had landed – and landed hard – on top of the famed neoclassical Doric columns. One of the city’s two major newspapers dubbed it the ”Mistake by the Lake,” with the other conducting a poll that concluded it was Chicago’s ugliest building.

As for the Bears’ possible new home, Arlington Park has been around for about as long as Soldier Field. The track itself opened in 1927, and in 1981 it hosted the first million-dollar race for thoroughbreds.

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