Yesterday the Chicago Bears organization dropped a bombshell on the residents of the greater Chicagoland area by announcing that the team’s leadership has put in a bid on the Arlington International Racecourse in suburban Arlington Heights. The horse racing track had been struggling with a decline in interest in the sport, and thus, lower revenues over the last few years. And then of course, there was the pandemic, which impacted all entertainment venues and arenas. The park, which has been in operation, for nearly 100 years has faced hard times, leading to owner Churchill Downs announcing its intention to sell the sprawling 326-acre complex earlier this year.
Statement from Chicago Bears President & CEO Ted Phillips: pic.twitter.com/5ACDDtccWU— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) June 17, 2021
Immediately after the Bears organization made its announcement, there was skepticism about whether the team’s intentions were serious, or if this was another possible “shakedown” for better terms and more assistance from the City of Chicago — after all, it’s not the first time the team has threatened to move out to Arlington Heights. But then, there’s the chance that the team is indeed serious and sees an opportunity to not only relocate the team, but also take ownership in its arena, therefore controlling costs, vendors and concessions, and possibly even making more money to spend on talent.
The Bears wouldn’t be the only team in a major metro that plays in an inner-ring burb or far-flung city, but then there’s the issue of the team’s name. Some fans are calling on the Bears to drop “Chicago” from its moniker and go by the Arlington Heights Bears, or possibly some other variation. But there are long-standing issues about traffic in downtown Chicago during games, the relatively low capacity of Soldier Field, and the inability to add parking for tailgating or any future stadium expansion. The issues could be largely addressed by the Bears taking control and possession of their own stadium and working with the Village of Arlington Heights to get the best possible terms.
The news of the Bears’ intentions (or threat, depending on how one views it) to move to the suburbs comes after Churchill Downs’ Tuesday deadline for bid submissions. There had been recent news about former Arlington Park President Roy Arnold leading an effort to purchase Arlington Park to continue the tradition and spirit of horse racing at the site. But even before bid submissions closed, there was speculation about redevelopment, or even the White Sox possibly making a move. Coincidentally, there was even discussion among Arlington Heights stakeholders about the idea of the Bears moving to the suburb.
Making threats to relocate the team to a different city is nothing new in professional sports, and one could even say, just another tool in the toolbox that team owners use (similarly to large corporations) to use their might to get their way. But in the case of the Bears, it could be different. There’s no doubt that building a new stadium would allow the team and fans to have it all, like a stadium with a retractable roof for colder winter games and heaps of parking. There’s also a Metra station specifically for Arlington Park, which would be a direct line to stadium for city-dwellers who choose to skip the drive.
For now, horse racing will continue at the park until September 25 when it closes for its final season. So is the announcement from the Bears just a power play to bully the City of Chicago or is it a smart real estate play? Whether there will be another season of horse racing, or a multi-year construction effort to make way for a new Bears stadium will yet to be determined for the time being.