October 15, 2021

Chicago Bears submit bid to purchase Arlington Park site

The 326-acre sight is up for sale; Bears have played at Soldier Field since 1971

The Bears have submitted a bid to purchase Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights, the team announced Thursday.

The racecourse’s owner, Churchill Downs Inc., had set Wednesday as the deadline to submit bids for the 326-acre location. Until Thursday, the Bears had not acknowledged whether they would submit a bid.

The team announced its decision to submit a bid via a news release Thursday.

‘It’s our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we’re doing what’s best for our organization and its future,” Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips said in the statement. “If selected, this step allows us to further evaluate the property and its potential.”

The Bears have played their home games at Soldier Field since 1971. This is just the first step, and it’s far from a guarantee that the Bears will be moving anytime soon. There remain many hurdles to building a new stadium.

“We welcome the Chicago Bears’ interest in the Arlington Park site,” Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said in a statement. “It is a one-of-a-kind location, and we are glad that the Bears’ ownership sees its tremendous potential. The village will be working with the listing broker to closely review proposals by all potential users in the coming months. Whether the final purchaser is the Chicago Bears or someone else, our goal is to determine which concept will be most beneficial to Arlington Heights from a long-term economic and community development perspective.”

The most immediate hurdle is the team’s current contract with the Chicago Park District, which runs Soldier Field. The current lease is through 2033. It’s certainly possible the team could break that lease, but that likely would be a complicated – not to mention costly – process.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in April that the city is willing to work with the Bears to update Soldier Field as needed. She also reiterated that the current lease runs through 2033 and said the “NFL doesn’t let any teams break their leases.”

Given the success, however, of recent new domed stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the NFL might be thinking differently.

The Los Angeles Rams set the precedent, turning the site of a former racetrack in Inglewood, California, into the state-of-the-art SoFi Stadium, which opened in 2020. Chairman George McCaskey and the Bears could be looking at the blueprint provided by Rams owner Stan Kroenke.

The Bears have not released any details of their proposal.

The idea of the Bears playing home games indoors – say goodbye to “Bear weather” – would be jarring initially. The gusty conditions on the lakefront at Soldier Field also could be part of the reason why the Bears never have had a quarterback throw for 4,000 yards in a season. A state-of-the-art indoor stadium would give the region its first opportunity to host a Super Bowl or the college basketball Final Four.

Arlington Heights also could be convenient leverage for the Bears.

This is far from the first time the Bears have threatened to move to the suburbs. The team played its home games at Wrigley Field from 1921 until 1970. After the AFL-NFL merger, the Bears needed to find a new stadium because the new league wanted all its teams playing in stadiums with a capacity of at least 50,000. The initial move to Soldier Field in 1971 came with only a three-year commitment. There was talk in the 1970s of a possible move to Arlington Heights before the Bears and Soldier Field made a long-term agreement in 1978.

The Bears again threatened to move to the suburbs in the 1990s before Soldier Field’s major renovation in the early 2000s. The Bears played the 2002 season at Memorial Stadium in Champaign while Soldier Field was dramatically altered. It now has been nearly two decades since any major renovations were done. The current maximum capacity of 61,500 makes it the smallest NFL stadium.

If the Bears want more renovations or alterations at Soldier Field, the Arlington Park location provides unique leverage. The threat of moving to the suburbs is sure to draw the attention of the city of Chicago.

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for Shaw Media. He also contributes to high school football coverage at Friday Night Drive. Sean has covered various sports at the amateur, college and professional levels since 2012. He joined Shaw Media in 2016.