Are the Bears bluffing?

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Having talked to informed insiders and looked at some critical legal documents, it seems to me quite possible the Bears indeed could go eventually. But at least not until their lease at Soldier Field expires in 2033. And maybe not then, depending on whether Mayor Lori Lightfoot can refrain from wagging fingers of the face of City Council members long enough to think creatively. Like, perhaps, putting a retractable roof on Soldier Field as part of a new deal, however much some folks will hate that idea.

Here’s what I’ve found out.

Under terms of the pact that landed the saucer in a remade Soldier Field, a local governmental unit assumed hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to pay for field reconstruction. That wasn’t the Chicago Park District, which owns Soldier Field, but rather the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, a city/state entity that owns and operates Sox Park, er, Guaranteed Rate Field. According to ISFA, it still has a cool $688 million in Soldier Field debt (principal and interest) to pay off by 2032.

That alone would give the locals good reason not to let the Bears out of their lease. So does the fact that, according to the park district, Soldier Field is a profit center, netting the district around $15 million a year after property taxes. Some of that comes from other users, but the Bears’ rent alone is around $5 million a year.

I’ve read through terms of the 2001 lease, technically called the Permit & Operating Agreement, and it appears to be pretty tight. “No agreement or law is ever ironclad,” says Park District General Counsel Timothy King. But this pact is about as tight as it gets, allowing the deal to be terminated only by mutual agreement (over Lightfoot’s dead body) or if the field is unusable for at least two games in a season.

Of course, the district could sweeten the deal, something Lightfoot has suggested is a possibility. For instance, more signage ads, which now are fairly limited despite some additional space granted a few years ago when the district was talking about reducing Bears parking to make way for the Lucas Museum. Or naming rights, something that was envisioned in the 2001 deal but fell apart after Sept. 11, 2001, over fears that the public would revolt at the concept of Acme Widget Stadium at Soldier Field or the like.

Ergo, the Bears quite probably stay around awhile longer. Even if they announced a deal today, it would be several years until they could open a stadium in Arlington Heights. But after 2033?

Soldier Field already is the smallest stadium in the National Football League and is a little more obsolete every year, a cold and windswept memorial more than a modern stadium. As long as it’s the Bears’ home, Chicago has no chance to host a Super Bowl or a Final Four. 

Does that mean that the team’s fiscally conservative ownership is willing to bring in equity partners or assume huge debts to build a new stadium that could cost $2 billion? Not necessarily. Does that mean that naming rights and other sweeteners wouldn’t move the needle some? No. But there’s no guarantee in that. The only guarantee will come if the city and team reach a new long-term deal, one which could, for instance, result in Soldier Field getting a retractable dome, with a few more seats in the process. That would have been technologically impossible a few decades ago. But now, with new technology?

As I suggested a bit ago, that’s the kind of thing Team Lightfoot needs to be examining. One of these years, the team won’t be bluffing.

via Crain’s Chicago Business

June 25, 2021 at 07:03AM

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