Since September of 1971 the Chicago Bears have called Soldier Field home. This came after George Halas was informed by the recently merged NFL that all stadiums must have a minimum seating capacity of at least 60,000 to be considered a home venue. Prior to this, the Bears played all their home games at Wrigley Field, which had a considerably smaller capacity.
Interestingly enough, Soldier Field used to be the host for the then-Chicago Cardinals in 1959. In 1960 the football Cardinals moved elsewhere. For nearly 12 years Soldier Field was unoccupied by any NFL team. Meanwhile, George Halas looked at several venues, including… Arlington Heights. For any amount of reason(s) those plans never worked out, and thus Papa Bear signed a 3-year lease with the Chicago Park District to move in.
That 3-year lease eventually turned into a 20-year lease, with renovations done, and the rest is history.
The history is filled with many twists and turns. George Halas once famously declared that the Bears, “paid more to lease their stadium than any team in the NFL,” as frustrations mounted for improvements. A chronic need has always been for a better playing surface that’ll survive the harsh elements during winter.
Soldier Field’s playing surface was originally Kentucky Bluegrass from 1924 through 1970, then converted to AstroTurf in 1971 and lasted through 1987, before being converted again… back to Kentucky Bluegrass. From 1988 onward Soldier Field has been natural grass, specifically because of the Chicago Park District’s ambitious plans to host Major League Soccer and FIFA games. FIFA requires all playing surfaces world-wide to be made of natural grass.
In 1994 Soldier Field hosted games for the FIFA Men’s World Cup. In 1999 it hosted games for the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Several CONCACAF Gold Cups have been hosted as well as being home to the MLS Club Chicago Fire FC. Yet, where we’ve seen plenty of CONCACAF Gold Cups being played at Soldier Field, FIFA hasn’t touched or even approached the complex to host World Cup games since 1994.
Not since the controversial renovation was done in 2002, which resulted in improvements to the interior, yet a significant reduction of seating capacity from just under 67,000 seats (66,944 to be exact) to the current figure of 61,500. That current seating capacity is plenty big for most international FIFA games. For the NFL, that literally is dead last. The next smallest seating capacity is in Glendale, AZ, at 63,400 for State Farm Stadium, the current home for the Arizona Cardinals.
That’s Simply Not Good Enough in the 21st Century
What’s more, the Chicago Bears have flirted with other venues for decades. In 1985 the notorious “McDome” proposal championed by Michael McCaskey was revealed as a new stadium complex featuring a dome to match the trend of other newer stadiums being built league-wide. McCaskey’s proposal was finalized and presented to The State in 1989. The State of Illinois Legislature shot that proposal down in 1990, which prompted the McCaskeys to seek a new venue.
Properties were then purchased at Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, and Aurora. “Planet Park” was proposed by Michael McCaskey and a group of investors from Northwest Indiana in 1995, yet cancelled altogether following the Lake County Council’s rejection. None of those properties saw major development towards a potential Bears’ Den ever since.
There was even a proposal in 1998 to have the Chicago Bears share Comiskey Park with the Chicago White Sox.
Naturally, that was never going to happen with the McCaskeys and Jerry Reinsdorf sharing a property together. Fast forward to recent developments, and in June of 2021, the Chicago Bears placed a formal bid to purchase the now-closed Arlington International Racecourse property. That bid sent a loud message to the Chicago Park District.
Enough is Enough
For over 40 years the Chicago Park District has done the bare minimum to maintain requirements to host NFL games. Nobody can dispute the beauty of having Soldier Field right at the lakefront of Lake Michigan. Plenty can dispute the stupidity involved with having the NFL’s smallest seating capacity in the United States' 3rd largest metropolitan complex.
It makes zero logical sense. None. Before we say, “supply and demand,” there’s millions of dollars being missed with such a small seating capacity.
No amount of marketing or branding can ever make up for the missed opportunities. Single-game tickets for a home game at Soldier Field have a median value of $727 per ticket, depending on when, where, and what kind of seats you want. Most of the tickets I’ve personally purchased are around $275. Fewer seats means higher prices.
That business model is archaic and inefficient in Sports Marketing. Hypothetically, if seating capacity was in the neighborhood of 70,000 or higher, and they remain in the 3rd biggest metropolitan complex — Arlington Heights is actually considered a suburb of Chicago — then they can decrease the ticket prices per game and still increase their profits substantially.
Not a believer? Let’s do a simple mathematical exercise. I’ll use the $275 price tag I’m familiar with from personal purchases to show a max potential “sell out” with the current seating capacity. Then, I’ll use that same price on the hypothetical 70,000 seats number, before dropping that ticket price by 10%.
With $275 per ticket at 61,500 seats, we have a maximum gross potential for $16,912,500 per game. If the stadium was at 70,000 seats, that gross swells to $19,250,000 per game. Nearly a full $3 million extra per game. Now, we’ll drop the per game tickets to $247.50, a full 10% decrease. With 70,000 seats that maximum gross is $17,325,000 per game.
The difference between the current seating arrangement at full price, vs. 70,000 seats with a 10% decrease, is $412,500 per game. With 8 home games that amounts to $3.3 million of potential revenue missed per year due to such a small seating capacity. Cheaper tickets, plus a large national fanbase, combined with a location within the 3rd largest metropolitan complex in the United States, would assure there’s never a game that’s not sold out.
Surely, there’s the cost of maintenance and other factors that’ll cut into the larger gross. Yet that’s likely a marginal number, at best. There’s money to be made, and the Chicago Park District is completely oblivious to that.
The Bears would literally be moving to the fans, most fans live in the suburbs and not the actual city itself. That’s almost always the case for fan bases in any professional team sport. And the NFL owners would LOVE for that potential boost in revenue to happen.
So much so that, in complete opposition to whatever Mayor Lightfoot could comprehend, it would be relatively easy for the McCaskey family (and the NFL for that matter) to break their lease at Soldier Field. The NFL owners could subsidize costs with a simple vote of approval. Whatever cost the McCaskey’s put out from their bank accounts will be recovered, if not reimbursed immediately.
Let’s take a look at part of Lightfoot’s statement posted on Twitter a couple weeks ago.
“As a season-ticket holder and longtime Bears fan, I am committed to keeping the ‘Chicago’ name in our football team,” Lightfoot said. “And like most Bears fans, we want the organization to focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers finally and being relevant past October. Everything else is noise.”
First, and foremost, the Chicago Bears will always be “Da Chicago Bears.” Moving to Arlington Heights, an aforementioned suburb of Chicago, would do nothing to change that. The proposed site is approximately an hour away from Soldier Field. It’s also 25 miles from downtown Chicago. That is identical to the distance between Arlington and Dallas, TX. You know, the HQ to the so-called “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys.
As a result the NFL will still recognize the Chicago Bears as such - the Chicago Bears. No lawsuit, legal agreement, or other action would change that line of thought. Any legal action would likely be thrown out of court to begin with. It’s basic Sports Marketing here.
The Chicago Bears’ HQ, Halas Hall, is in Lake Forest. That’s 32.7 miles from downtown Chicago. So, what do we now call them, the Lake Forest Bears?
Absolutely not. Just as the New York Jets and Giants are not the New Jersey Jets or Giants. Or as the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers are not the Inglewood Rams or Chargers. Or as the Washington Football Team is not the Maryland Football Team. Or, the biggest doozy, the Dallas Cowboys aren’t the Arlington Cowboys. Ten total teams do this.
Here’s the full list of NFL teams currently playing in locations outside of their actual names.
- New York Giants and Jets (both are in the state of New Jersey)
- Los Angeles Rams and Chargers (Inglewood, CA)
- San Francisco 49ers (Santa Clara, CA)
- Las Vegas Raiders (Paradise, NV)
- Dallas Cowboys (Arlington, TX)
- Washington Football Team (Landover, MD)
- Miami Dolphins (Miami Garden, and yes, it’s a separate city in FL)
- Buffalo Bills (Orchard Park, NY)
Also, Mayor Lightfoot would like the Bears to be relevant past October? Say it ain’t so? Despite two playoff appearances in the last three years? Hell, since we’re taking shots here, we’d like a playing surface that would be relevant and viable past September! I’m sure the players and NFLPA would certainly agree with that statement.
The Logistics Involved is Sound
Just how much would the Chicago Bears have to pay to break their lease, which doesn’t expire until 2033? According to this well written article by Bill Ruthart of the Chicago Tribune, the total cost is $84 million. Sounds expensive, right?
Wrong. That is incredibly small compared to what would likely be multiple billions to spend on building a new stadium on a 326-acre site at Arlington Heights. For comparison’s sake the Soldier Field complex is just 7 acres.
Per that same article by Ruthart, the Chicago Bears are worth an estimated $3.5 billion even without owning their own stadium. And the average cost to build a stadium will likely exceed $2.5 billion. $84 million is roughly 3% of the final cost involved. Break the lease for less than $100 million, or pay the Chicago Park District over 7x that amount to complete a modest upgrade?
The cost of a renovation at Soldier Field would likely exceed $700 million, a renovation for a stadium the Bears don’t actually own. The previous, and really only major renovation done at Soldier Field, cost around $690 million. That’s basically akin to asking a tenant at a rental property like a house or an apartment to finance for significant home improvements. That’s bad business, no matter how rosy your shades are.
Oh, and remember that part I mentioned the Bears not owning Soldier Field? They could fork over the dough, and the Park District can refuse, while holding out for more money. Haven’t we accused the McCaskeys enough of being a bunch of cheapskates? I’m guilty of that myself. Yet, who’s the real culprit here?
An easy argument against moving to the Suburbs would be transportation issues and a current lack of amenities outside of the stadium. Those are valid concerns. Those concerns can be mediated easily, too.
Any potential stadium complex at Arlington Heights, on such a large plot of land, would likely host several Super Bowls. Also, 326 acres is a LOT of land. It won’t just be a stadium being built, oh no, it would be far more than that. Modern NFL stadiums and complexes are no longer just sites to watch a football game.
They are an all inclusive experience for the fans. Shopping malls, restaurants, even fully functional casinos and hotels are now included in the same complex. Just look at Allegiant Stadium at Paradise, NV, for an idea of what we can expect for a hypothetical Chicago Bears stadium of the future. There’s a legit casino being built in that same stadium.
Time is Ticking… and Moves Have Already Been Made
Speaking of which… the Chicago Bears announced a partnership with BetRivers and Rivers Casino starting in 2021. The owner of that company, Churchill Downs, is also the current owner of the exact same site in Arlington Heights that the Chicago Bears applied to bid on. The Bears already have secured their likely financial ally for any potential construction. A stadium that’s actually worthy of hosting a 100+ year old NFL franchise that calls itself home in the 3rd biggest metropolitan complex in the country.
It would be a match made in football heaven for the Chicago Bears and Arlington Heights. You bring the Bears to town, build the stadium and surrounding businesses around the site, then move in once construction is complete. In all likelihood, the Bears would have to wait until 2026 to move into their new home. And that’s perfectly acceptable.
It’s entirely on the Chicago Park District to stop screwing around and make a counteroffer that’s worth consideration.
Frankly, we real Bears fans want a better stadium. We have yet to see a good effort from that commission, and it’s been over 40 years. The McCaskeys, for as much grief they’ve earned over the years, appear fed up as well. And, remember, the Chicago Bears will ALWAYS be the Chicago Bears. Just with a new stadium that’ll justify their value as a founding franchise in America’s King of Sports.