Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday sounded almost resigned to moving on at Soldier Field without the Bears, at least if convincing the team to stay requires building a new stadium to accommodate the financial reality of the modern-day NFL.
Lightfoot was forced to face the possibility that the Bears will leave Chicago one day after the team upped the ante in the high-stakes negotiations by signing an agreement to purchase the Arlington International Racecourse property.
Churchill Downs pegged the sale price at $197.2 million and said it anticipated closing the sale in 2022 or early 2023.
Between now and then, Lightfoot hopes to talk turkey with the Bears about what she can do within fiscal reason to expand and improve Soldier Field and maximize year-round revenues.
But if nothing short of a new, preferably-domed stadium — either in parking lots adjacent to Soldier Field or on land now occupied by McCormick Place East — will prevent the Bears from moving to Arlington Heights, the beloved Bears could be a goner.
“You know the economics of municipally-financed stadiums, as do I, as do the Bears. If you look at what’s been built recently in the NFL–whether it’s SoFi [in Los Angeles] or the Allegiant in Las Vegas, you’re talking about a four or five billion-dollar venture. And if you look in to the future, that pricetag is only gonna go up,” Lightfoot said Wednesday morning in an interview with Mike Mulligan and David Haugh on 670 The Score.
“In a time where we’re going through a recovery from an epic economic meltdown as a result of COVID-19, we’ve got to be smart about how we spend taxpayers’ dollars and I intend to do just that. … I would love that the Bears be part of our present and our future. But we’ve got to do a deal that makes sense for us in the context of where we are. I’m always focused on our taxpayers. Always, always, always. And maximizing the value for them.”
Lightfoot said she appreciates the heads-up phone call she got from Bears President George McCaskey. But what she clearly does not appreciate is the team’s decision to cancel a negotiating session that had been scheduled for Tuesday and continue to play cat-and-mouse about what, if anything, it would take to keep them at a renovated Soldier Field.
“We can’t operate in the dark. I don’t have a Magic 8 Ball to divine what the Bears want. Obviously, we have some sense of it. But you’ve got to get down to brass tacks. You’ve got to put your cards on the table and figure out what’s possible and what’s not possible. … I can’t negotiate with myself. They’ve actually got to come to us and tell us what they want. We have been open to a conversation. They have not,” she said.
“They’ve got a contract that runs to 2033. I’m not about to let them out and certainly not on a ‘Thanks for the memories and goodbye.’ If they want to leave, they’re gonna have to pay us consistent with the contract. But we’ve got to have a discussion with them and they’ve got to put some cards on the table which, thus far, they really haven’t been willing to do…We’re can’t operate in the dark.”
That payment for leaving Soldier Field early could amount to about $86.9 million, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis.
The Bears started out their lease on the then-freshly renovated Soldier Field in 2004, paying $5.7 million a year to use the stadium and parking lots.
Their contract with the park district calls for that payment to increase every five years tied to the Consumer Price Index, putting their current rate at about $6.6 million per year.
If the team were to break ground on a suburban stadium in 2023, after the sale closes, allowing an estimated two years for construction, the Bears could be expected to break their Soldier Field lease in 2026.
The contract puts them on the hook for 150% of their remaining obligations, which shakes out to roughly $86.9 million, the Sun-Times calculates.
The contract also leaves open the possibility of either side challenging the contract through an independent arbitration process.
Still, $86.9 milion is less than half what the team has agreed to pay for the Arlington Heights oval — and a pittance compared to the cost of a new stadium guaranteed to have a price tag in the billions.
Even at that price, a new stadium is an attractive option for the Bears, who would gain many things that are simply not possible at their current location.
Two architects who worked on the 2003 renovation and a structural engineer familiar with the project told the Sun-Times that when it comes to improving Soldier Field, the mayor’s hands may be tied by the constraints of a lakefront seating bowl already towering over historic colonnades at a stadium that’s also a war memorial.
Chicago architects Dirk Lohan and Adrian Smith said only modest expansion is possible at the NFL’s smallest stadium, and only in the north and south end zones. And a retractable dome would be equally difficult because it would require a new support structure.
Sports marketing expert Marc Ganis went even further.
He argued nothing short of a new, preferably-domed stadium will keep the Bears on the lakefront, because the “economics of the NFL” have “changed dramatically since Soldier Field was renovated at a cost of $660 million. It was financed by bonds issued by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority — a debt that won’t be paid off until 2032.
“Short of creating a domed type of project, which would be a new facility in that same general area with public sector support because of increased costs, I don’t see how there’s a long-term solution along the lakefront,” Ganis said last week.
“It wouldn’t really matter that much if the mayor said you could do naming rights. You could do gambling. And you can have more advertising. You can put in more events. The building itself was economically obsolete before the concrete dried.”
During Wednesday’s radio interview, Lightfoot pretty much agreed.
She argued that the Bears cut a deal 20 years and two mayors ago that “they’re unhappy with” and “clearly feel doesn’t work for them” in the modern-day economics of the NFL.
“There’s longstanding issues way before I came on the scene. I can’t do anything about the past. All I can do is about the present and the future. And we were more than willing to have a reasonable discussion with them. But, they’ve got to want to come to the table in good faith,” she said.
With or without the Bears, Lightfoot said she is intent on improving the fan experience at Soldier Field, maximizing year-round revenues.
The mayor said she is “very mindful of what the restrictions are” along the lakefront. But, she argued that there is “still room to do something big and bold” without running afoul of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and Friends of the Parks, whose opposition killed former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build the Lucas Museum on lakefront park land near Soldier Field.
“We are not getting the best that we can out of that venue. Six months of the year or so, it stays empty. … It makes no sense to me that we’ve got these massive parking lots that are vacant for much of the year,” she said.
“So we’ve assembled a small group that is gonna start looking at, what can we be doing really from the Shedd [Aquarium] down to McCormick Place, to maximize the value of this incredible asset and really make the fan experience — whether they’re coming for a Bears game or they’re coming for a concert — something that is really enjoyable and can be there as a year-round revenue generator.”
Lightfoot noted the NFL already has 11 teams that play outside cities in their names.
When negotiations with the Bears turned contentious, former Mayor Richard M. Daley threatened to bring a second team into Chicago, which was home to the NFL’s Cardinals before they moved to St. Louis (and eventually Phoenix).
Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters Wednesday after a Chicago Fire Department graduation ceremony.Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Asked Wednesday about the possibility of a second team in Chicago, Lightfoot said only: “We’re a long, long way from that discussion.”
Noting that Soldier Field was “rocking” for last weekend’s Shamrock Series match-up between Notre Dame and Wisconsin, Lightfoot said: “If the Bears decide their future is in Arlington Heights — and I hope that’s not the case — we’re not gonna lack for suitors to make Soldier Field a permanent home.”
Three months ago, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority agreed to refinance a chunk of its Soldier Field debt to let Chicago taxpayers off hook for what would have been a $22 million cost tied to the pandemic and its devastating impact on the hotel tax. Revenue from that tax is used to make payments on the Soldier Field bonds.
In the last fiscal year, ending June 30, the debt service payment was $46.5 million. It goes to $49.4 million in 2022, and continues to increase gradually until balloon payments at the end: $66.5 million in 2030, $81.7 million in 2031 and $86.9 million in 2032.
Those balloon payments were among changes made after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the travel industry ground to a halt.
To salvage the Soldier Field renovation deal, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley pressured the Bears to permanently forfeit their right to sell corporate naming rights to Soldier Field and built in a two-year protection for Chicago taxpayers.
Under the original version, the state could keep a chunk of the city’s share of the state income tax whenever the Chicago hotel tax failed to grow at an annual rate of 5.5% — enough to retire $399 million in stadium bonds.
The new version was restructured — with interest payments deferred, triggering those balloon amounts — to make a local tax bailout unnecessary for two years. That gave the airline, convention and tourism industries an opportunity to rebound from the devastating losses they suffered after the terrorist attacks.