The Chicago Bears and the franchise’s landlord, the Chicago Park District (CPD), have had a feud for a long time over the structural improvements and leases at Soldier Field. There have even been some rumors speculating that the Bears might leave the iconic stadium and enter a search for a newer and bigger suburban home.
However, new evidence suggests that there may be an additional reason why the Bears made a bid for Arlington International Racecourse – sports betting.
Two weeks before the franchise announced that it will bid for Arlington, the president of the team accused the Chicago Park District of refusing to enter any conversation concerning the expansion of sports betting services at Soldier Field. This information was obtained by WBEZ via the freedom of information request show.
The Sports Betting Factor Sheds Light As to Why the Bears are Looking for a New Home
The sports betting-related exchange, which was previously unreported, shed massive light on the reported underlying factor of why the Bears are looking to leave Soldier Field. The franchise, however, denied the allegations that the potential revenue from sports betting is the reason for the search for a new home.
A spokesman for the team even had a two-word statement on Friday concerning these rumors and he said that the two cases are completely unrelated.
Ted Phillips, the CEO, and president of the Bears, wrote to Michael Kelly, the Chicago Park District Superintendent, in a memo from June 3. The memo had the headline ‘Legalized Sports Betting,’ and in it, Phillips said that the franchise was trying to discuss the creation of a sportsbook with the Park District near the stadium itself and thus, take full advantage of the 2019 Illinois law that allowed sports betting to take place at certain stadiums in the state.
But in April 2020, the time of the original pitch, the Bears stated that the NFL banned sportsbooks from operating within the stadium. In the past year, interpretations of that law appeared to be loosened. Last month, the Arizona Cardinals reportedly struck a deal to feature a sportsbook within its stadium.
The Indianapolis Colts is also opening a sports lounge, where on-site betting will not be permitted, but the lounge will have ambassadors that will help visitors place bets online. At the time, Phillips also pitched the idea of having a sports lounge inside Soldier Field for the days when the franchise is playing. His idea was creating so-called discreet locations that would ‘impersonate’ a sportsbook by broadcasting live NFL games and featuring the betting lines on the screens, but without allowing actual betting to take place. Money was also to be made with this proposal.
The Park District Was Offered a Revenue Cut
According to the emails, Phillips offered a 20% revenue cut to the Park District. However, the leader of the department replied with a short statement. The reply stated that the organization was considering the new laws on sports betting in Illinois, which were signed in June 2019 by Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker.
On November 6, 2020, Kelly wrote to Phillips that it would not be productive to pursue those opportunities at the time. He also added that his team was working on a certain design for the park and an open space that is adjacent to Soldier Field’s North end. However, he did note that he’ll consider Phillips’ opinions when the time is right.
Seven months after receiving this letter, Phillips fired back, on June 3, 2021. He wrote that it is disappointing that it has been over a year since the Bears reached out to Kelly and he refused to engage in any type of a good-faith conversation that will leverage the Bears brand, while also making a profit for the CPD.
Two weeks after this response, the Bears publicly announced that it put in a bid for the Arlington International Racecourse, located in suburban Arlington Heights, but it did not include any information as to its usage. According to speculations, the Bears’ intention was to move the team to the new space and enjoy a larger stadium. The 326-acre tract also has the potential to include entertainment space around the stadium.
A spokesman for the Bears did not share any information with WBEZ on whether the Park District had additional discussions concerning sports betting since the memo on June 3. Scott Hagel, a spokesman for the Bears noted that any type of discussion will remain between the Bears and the CPD. The CPD didn’t answer the requests to make a comment, nor did the office of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Lightfoot stated that the decision for the Bears to go public with the Arlington Heights bid is a negotiating tactic. She also added that the franchise has done that before.
In her statement made in June, Lightfoot said that the announcement by the Bears comes in the middle of the Soldier Field improvement negotiations. She added that it is crystal clear that it is a negotiating tactic, one that the franchise has used before. She also noted that as a major Bears fan, she advocates on the team putting in the necessary focus to put a winning team on the field, beat the Packers, and be relevant. Everything else is not important as it is just noise.
The Franchise is Eager to Enter Sports Betting
The eagerness of the Bears to enter the sports betting gold rush, even if the Park District is not included, is growing. If the franchise wins its Arlington bid, it will purchase the field from a gambling giant – Churchill Downs Inc., a company based in Kentucky and one that announced that its final race will take place on Saturday.
Churchill Downs also has a majority share in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, IL, 15 miles from the racetrack. The Bears announced in June that Rivers Casino will be the new team sponsor, while BetRivers.com will be its official betting partner.
A Churchill Downs spokesman did not comment on the current ties that the company has with the Bears, nor the bid that it made for the racetrack. Neil Bluhm, the chairman of Rush Street Gaming, which owns Rivers Casino, did not comment as well. Hence, it is unknown when the winning bid for the Arlington racetrack will be announced.
Legal Sports Betting in Illinois is Proving to be Profitable
17 months after sports betting in Illinois was legalized, the Illinois Gaming Board shared the numbers. Rivers Casino recorded more than a billion dollars in professional sports wagering that occurred either in-person or via its online betting platform.
From March 2020 to July 2021, approximately $5.5 billion was wagered on sports, a majority of which were made online ($5.3 billion according to a WBEZ analysis of the data). If the Bears stay at Soldier Field, a sportsbook license would cost $10 million, plus $5 million to renew each year. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that an alderman in Chicago made a proposition to each sportsbook – pay a comparatively low one-time fee to the city, which would be $50,000, and $25,000 every year going forward.
All of this comes as Lightfoot’s administration is keen on getting Chicago’s own casino off the ground, which is permitted with the 2019 law but had to extend the request deadline due to lukewarm proposals from the gambling industry.
As for the bid announcement, this is not the first saga concerning the Bears’ home field. Less than 20 years earlier, the city started renovating Soldier Field, which ended up costing around $660 million. The Chicago Tribune reported that even though the Bears’ lease to play on Soldier Field lasts until 2033, the cost to break that lease would be extremely low.
As expensive as constructing a new stadium may be, it has some benefits, one of which is higher seat capacity. Soldier Field’s seat capacity is 61,500, a lot lower number compared to other NFL stadiums. A new arena, which, for example, would have a retractable roof, would be able to welcome thousands of more fans and prove to be enticing for a team that is known for suffering the harsh winters in Chicago. That also means that additional money comes in by hosting major events, with the Super Bowl being one of them.
The extra money that will be gained from sports wagering and its advertising is an equal amount of spiking the football. Marc Ganis, a Sponsorship Ltd. sports economist, stated that betting on sports will be an important revenue stream for the teams and the league in the future.
He added that having to wait for the landlord to approve it, instead of just building it elsewhere, can also be tiring for the Bears and that this particular case is an example of the limitations that the Bears is facing and a reason more why the franchise would want to build its own ground.