CHICAGO — The Bears are again publicly flirting with moving the team out of Chicago to build a better stadium, a recurring theme Mayor Lori Lightfoot dismissed as “clearly a negotiating tactic that the Bears have used before.”
And then she took a swipe.
“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,” Lightfoot said in a tweet. “Everything else is just noise.”
The Bears’ lease at Soldier Field, the NFL’s smallest stadium with 61,500 seats, runs out in 2033. On Thursday, after months of speculation, team President and CEO Ted Phillips said in a statement the Bears put in a bid to buy the Arlington International Racecourse, which sits on a sprawling chunk of Arlington Heights along a Metra line and near multiple highways.
Its owner, Churchill Downs, put the 326-acre property up for sale in February as a redevelopment opportunity. The racetrack, rebuilt after a 1985 fire, could shut down at the end of this racing season.
“It’s our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we’re doing what’s best for our organization and it’s future,” Phillips wrote. “If selected, this step allows us to further evaluate the property and its potential.”
The Bears moved into the Chicago Park District-owned Soldier Field in 1971, but threatened a move to Arlington Heights several years later. Then Mayor Richard J. Daley threatened to sue to block them from calling themselves the Chicago Bears if they moved. His son Mayor Richard M. Daley also had years of tense negotiations with the team, who threatened to move to Gary, Ind. in 1995.
Lightfoot, in her statement, noted the Arlington Heights move “comes in the midst of negotiations for improvements at Soldier Field.” She also pointed out the Bears are “locked into a lease at Soldier Field until 2033.”
Bears fans around the region had varying takes on the latest concern the team might leave the lakefront.
Mickey Pruitt, a former Bears linebacker and current director of sports for Chicago Public Schools, said “it would be nuts” to see the Bears without Soldier Field.
“Soldier Field is historic, and leaving Soldier Field will be devastating for the city of Chicago,” Pruitt said. “Just growing up in Chicago, watching the Bears play in Soldier Field, and then playing with the Bears in Soldier Field, it’s tremendously gratifying to a young athlete that’s growing up in the city of Chicago and through Chicago Public Schools.”
A stadium outside city limits would likely expand on the Bears’ current capacity. But Pruitt said more tickets and amenities may not make the Bears more of a draw.
“Being in Arlington, I’m not sure if the Bears will feel at home,” Pruitt said. “The working-class people in the city, they may not go out to Arlington to the games. It is more comfortable for the Bears to be here. When you’re talking about the Chicago Bears, they are the city of Chicago.”
Connor Burns, an 18-year-old season ticket holder from Naperville, runs a Bears fan TikTok (@therealburns3) with more than 100,000 followers. His page has debated rumors of the possible move for about a month.
“What I saw on TikTok, it was very split,” Burns said. “People who live in the city didn’t want it to happen, but everybody from the suburbs was saying this was a perfect move.”
Burns has personally advocated for the team’s relocation — to the tune of 10,000 likes.
“We want change instead of Soldier Field. The whole reason I want them to move is because it’s not in the best shape anymore,” Burns said. “We’re one of the largest cities in the U.S. and we have one of the smallest stadiums in the NFL.”
Big city teams opting for more room in the suburbs is not unprecedented. The New York Giants and New York Jets moved out of the city decades ago for New Jersey. The San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team also play outside the cities they’re named after.
On the other end of the spectrum: The Fire, Chicago’s Major League Soccer team, moved to the suburbs after 2005 but have now returned to playing in Soldier Field. The team saw its attendance plummet when it moved out of the city.
Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes is receptive to the idea of the Bears moving.
“We welcome the Chicago Bears’ interest in the Arlington Park site,” Hayes said in a statement posted Thursday afternoon. “It is a one of a kind location and we are glad that the Bears ownership sees its tremendous potential.”
Alan Riefenberg, a Bears season ticket holder since 1995 and a resident of Barrington, recognizes his increased ease of travel to Arlington Heights. Riefenberg takes the train to Bears games to avoid Soldier Fields’ limited parking. The team’s move would flip the commute, with city dwellers taking the Metra to the Racecourse’s nearest stop at Arlington Park on Union Pacific Northwest rail line. A new facility on Arlington Racecourse’s site would likely mean increased parking for drivers.
Still, Riefenberg feels unsure about the Bears joining him in the suburbs.
“I’m sort of torn, because I like going into the city of Chicago,” Riefenberg said. “I’m born and raised here my whole life. And I like that I can see the skyline from my seats.”
In a top Twitter comment underneath Philips’ initial statement, Brad “Buzz” Squires offered to sell his seats if the Bears were to leave Soldier Field. Squires has been a season ticket holder since birth.
“I said that out of anger. It’s really frustrating. Arlington Heights is too far away,” Squires said. “What bums me out the most is that I love my seats and the people I sit around with, who’ve known me since I was a kid. It’s going to be hard to recreate that if you go up more north.”
Pruitt admitted that Bears fans may have to learn to live with the potential reality of a move — down the line in 2034.
“Football is going to be football — fans are going to adjust, players are going to adjust to where they are,” Pruitt said. “People are going to adjust to where it’s at anyway. There just won’t be the same feeling in Chicago than in Arlington.”
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