America’s biggest cities are making a tentative recovery from the pandemic, as business districts, transit networks, nightlife, and the arts slowly get back into shape. The patient is in stable condition but isn’t out of bed yet. When relief money runs out, and property tax revenue drops, cities will have to make some painful decisions.
So if you ran an immensely valuable business whose downtown presence makes a lively, remunerative, and heavily symbolic contribution to a city going through a hard time, now would be a particularly cruel time to take off.
Enter the Chicago Bears. On Wednesday, the team announced it had agreed to spend $200 million on a racetrack 30 miles northwest of Chicago’s Soldier Field, the city-owned stadium where they have played since 1971. The team’s statement was opaque, but the key word in the following sentence is “Chicagoland”—the vast suburban hinterland that stretches from Wisconsin to Indiana: “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.” After 50 years of threats, the franchise looks like it’s really moving to the far-off suburb of Arlington Heights.
It has been less than two decades since the Bears last demanded and received a set of renovations to Chicago’s historic lakefront stadium. In 2000, Mayor Richard M. Daley agreed to spend about $660 million installing a modern stadium inside Soldier Field’s stone colonnade, which opened a few years later to poor reviews. Most of the money came from Chicago hotel taxes, with repayment backloaded so that the city’s debt service will rise to $86 million a year by the time the Bears’ lease expires in 2033. The team pays just $6.6 million each year to use the city’s stadium and could seal the racetrack deal in Arlington as soon as next year.
It was a short marriage, but the Bears are hurting for the league’s new standard amenities: more luxury boxes, corporate naming rights, a roof, a sportsbook, a hanging Jumbotron the size of O’Hare. Those needs are complicated by Chicago’s present budget deficit (not that it would be a good idea in good times to give public money to the NFL) and the stadium’s status as a war memorial (McDonald’s Soldier Field just doesn’t sound right).
As Chicago-born sportswriter Nick Greene put it to me, “The NFL is meant to be watched on TV, so the stadium has to approximate the experience of fans being shrunk down and inside a giant TV.” Soldier Field is so not a giant TV that it doesn’t even have a giant TV, at least by NFL standards. The hardscrabble Bears experience used to be a point of pride, but wouldn’t it be even better if fans could drunk-drive into the sprawl and lose $1,000 on the coin toss inside an air-conditioned mall?
Chicago outlets like WBEZ and the Sun-Times are starting to dig into the back-and-forth between the city and the team, and I’m sure each side will leak dirt about the other in the days to come. But in some respects, the situation is very familiar.
The Washington Football Team and the San Francisco 49ers are two franchises that left their namesake cities over the past few decades in search of better deals in the ’burbs. The 49ers now play a long 35 miles from San Francisco—in another metro area entirely! Cities just won’t shell out for pro sports stadiums the way they did 20 or 30 years ago, nor should they: Predicted economic benefits don’t materialize.
The sense of resignation about this development in Chicago reflects the fact that Mayor Lori Lightfoot—herself a Bears season ticket holder—has few good options. She may have fought tooth and nail in private to keep the team, but in public she told them to focus on being “relevant past October,” advice that the 1–2 squad does not seem to be taking.
Do the Bears need a new stadium? Fans do not love Soldier Field, as good as it looks in a blimp shot with a snowy Chicago skyline behind it. And if the McCaskey family, which owns the team, wants to drop a billion or two on a new stadium in the middle of nowhere, so what? They’ll probably get a bunch of tax incentives from Arlington Heights, the 75,000-person suburb where the racetrack is located. They’ll probably try to develop a huge, tax-exempt sports-retail-hotel complex around the new stadium. And they’ll finally be able to ink a sweet deal associating their home with Conagra or Boeing.
Economic activity in Chicagoland is not a zero-sum game; activities like college football or concerts may pick up the slack in Soldier Field that the Bears leave behind. The impact on Chicago will be more symbolic than economic (the benefits from eight regular home games a year are not huge). Still, it’s a symbolic blow—and part of a noxious pattern. A low-tax football entertainment complex will contribute to the race to the bottom that has characterized suburbanization around most big U.S. cities, in which flighty corporate interests force taxpayers to bid for their presence, only to turn around and leave when a more lucrative opportunity presents itself. The Bears, like many suburbanites before them, will move out to a place where they don’t have to pay for the city qualities they still take advantage of (in this case: the country’s third-largest media market). And instead of being a part of Chicago’s vibrant downtown, their stadium will be an isolated highway casino, a symbol of institutional abandonment of the city.
What’s Chicago to do? Perhaps make good on a threat Richard J. Daley made when the Bears discussed moving to Arlington Heights in 1975: Make them be the Arlington Heights Bears (legal viability unclear). Or one Richard M. Daley made 20 years ago: Bring another NFL team to play downtown. Soldier Field may not have a roof, but at least it has a city.