CHICAGO — The Chicago Bears reportedly signed a purchase agreement for the sprawling 326-acre site that holds the newly closed Arlington Park racetrack in northwest suburban Arlington Heights, a move that sets the stage for the team to make good on its on-again, off-again threat to leave the city.
The Athletic first reported that the team inked a deal with the park’s owner, Churchill Downs, which put the track up for sale with the intention of ending races there. The last race was held over the weekend. The Athletic said an announcement from the Bears is planned for Wednesday.
“My statement still stands on the Bears: my admin remains committed to continuing the work to keep the team in Chicago,” the mayor said. “As I have said numerous times, our door in City Hall remains open.”
When the Bears announced they were getting into the bidding for Arlington in June, Lightfoot dismissed it as “clearly a negotiating tactic that the Bears have used before.” And she took a swipe, saying: “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 just noise.”
The Bears’ lease at Soldier Field, the NFL’s smallest stadium with 61,500 seats, runs out in 2033. In June, 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.
Churchill Downs put it up for sale in February as a redevelopment opportunity. The racetrack was rebuilt after a 1985 fire and was long considered one of the premier racing venues in the country.
The Bears pay rent to the Chicago Park District for Soldier Field, split revenues and have little expansion possibilities. A move to a new site is expected to mean a potentially multi-billion dollar, Bears-owned complex that would create a flood of new revenue streams for the team. No details on how the Bears would finance the project have been revealed.
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.
The Bears have a lease at Soldier Field until 2033, but could break it in 2026 by paying an $84 million penalty to the city, the Tribune has reported. That price tag goes down in future years.
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.
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