Jan. 26, 1986. Oct. 26, 2005.
For certain Chicago sports fans, those dates are committed to memory. (You might also know June 14, 1998; June 15, 2015; and Nov. 2, 2016. Bonus points for Oct. 17, 2021, and if Oct. 25, 1998 or Sept. 27, 2006, ring a bell, why are you reading this instead of entering trivia contests for money?
But not everyone can recite from memory the date of their favorite team’s last championship, nor does every sports fan care solely about trophies. And many folks simply don’t care for sports at all – also valid! But recent news swirling about the Chicago White Sox (2005 World Series winners) and Bears (who won Super Bowl XX in 1986) necessarily involves everyone in Illinois because it reminds us how much public money has been committed to each franchise over the decades … and how no matter the sum it never seems to be enough.
Amid the ongoing, justified angst about how much Bears ownership can leverage to supplement real estate dreams for the site of the old horse track in Arlington Heights, we learned this week the White Sox might try a leverage play of their own with six years remaining on the lease at the South Side ballpark in just its 33rd season.
So far everything for the Bears and Sox is just talk, although the Bears’ grand vision is well past the point of conjecture, but there’s enough history of cities, counties and even the entire state getting bent over a barrel for stadium and other subsidies to realize even the early chatter is a red flag worth observing.
Clearly pro sports – especially football, basketball and baseball – are economic engines. Teams and arenas collectively (if sometimes indirectly) employ thousands of people, while fans, sponsors, broadcasters and advertisers pay millions to keep things humming. Media outlets (including the one publishing me) thrive on coverage, and in special cases the money churns even if the on-field results are terrible.
But ultimately the entire operation financially benefits owners more than anyone, and if ever the outlook starts to shift there’s always the potential to sell at a significant profit over the original purchase price. That’s not to say the people who make the large initial investments shouldn’t be able to profit, but it’s never seemed fair when owners pad those earnings on the backs of taxpayers.
Lawmakers have their chance to reshape how things will go, at least in Illinois, by firmly rejecting whatever help the Bears and Sox seek. For those with short memories, concurrent aid trolling might even underscore just how much is at stake.
If these teams want to profit off fans’ goodwill, fine. But leave our taxes alone.