The cost of breaking their Soldier Field lease could cost the Chicago Bears nearly $90 million, but that would only be a small chunk of how much the team will have to shell out to reach its goal of playing in a shiny new suburban stadium — and it could be dwarfed by the amount of government subsidies the team might ask for to break ground in Arlington Heights.
That’s according to a Sun-Times analysis of the team’s lease with the Chicago Park District, which owns the aging lakefront gridiron and has the Monsters of the Midway on the hook if they skip town for Arlington Heights within the next few years.
The Bears — among the few NFL teams that don’t own their home turf — signed the lease in 2001 after pushing for Soldier Field’s notorious overhaul. They started playing at the renovated stadium in 2004, paying $5.7 million a year for use of the stadium and parking lots.
The contract with the park district runs through 2033 and calls for that payment to increase every five years, an increase tied to the Consumer Price Index, putting their current rate at about $6.6 million per year.
Arlington International Racecourse owner Churchill Downs said the sale to the Bears could close by early 2023. If the Bears were to break ground then, followed by an estimated two years for construction, the team could be expected to break their Soldier Field lease in 2026.
But the Bears’ contract with the park district puts the team on the hook for 150% of their remaining obligations if they go through with such an “improper relocation,” which shakes out to roughly $86.9 million, the Sun-Times calculates.
When the Bears signed the contract to play in a renovated Soldier Field, they agreed to pay a fine if they broke the lease and left before the term was up.AFP/Getty Images
That buyout fee decreases the longer the team stays at Soldier Field. For example, it’d be closer to $55 million if they stick around till 2029, or less than $12 million if they break the lease with a year remaining.
The contract also leaves open the possibility of either side challenging the contract through independent arbitration.
Still, $86.9 million is less than half what the Bears agreed to pay for the 326-acre Arlington Heights property, and it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the financing needed for a new stadium guaranteed to cost billions.
The Arlington property has plenty of land for the Bears to develop as they see fit. It also has a Metra stop right next to it.Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Whatever the price, the move is an attractive option for the Bears, who would stand to generate huge new revenues over Soldier Field. It has the NFL’s smallest capacity at 61,500.
Meanwhile, with or without the Bears, taxpayers will still be paying off debt on the Soldier Field renovation for another decade. It was financed by bonds issued by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, obligations that will total $660 million by the time it’s paid off in 2032.
Officials at the Facilities Authority did not respond to requests for comment on the Bears’ threat to move.
While the team has said it’s still only in the “exploration” phase of a move, one conservative group is urging state and local officials not to “repeat the mistakes of the past” with sizable public financing and tax breaks.
“I expect the Bears to ask for the world,” said Brian Costin, deputy state director of the Illinois chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
He pointed to the case of southwest suburban Bridgeview, which issued $135 million in bonds in 2005 to build what’s now called SeatGeek Stadium, only to see its main tenant, the Chicago Fire, break its lease to move to Soldier Field — while the village’s bond rating plummeted to junk status.
Bridgeview built a new soccer-only stadium to lure the Chicago Fire from Soldier Field to the western suburb in 2006. But the Fire reversed course and returned to Soldier Field in 2020, though the Chicago Red Stars, who play in the National Women’s Soccer League, are still a tenant, however.Sun-Times file
But Costin noted a multibillion-dollar stadium would be a boon for Arlington Heights and Cook County through property taxes — something the Bears have never paid as lakefront tenants.
“This can be a very pro-taxpayer development with private financing and the right policies in place,” he said.
Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes declined to comment on whether he’d support subsidizing the Bears’ move, or whether the team has broached the topic.
“We’re certainly looking forward to further exploring this potential move, and we’re going to have a lot of community discussions,” Hayes said.