The Chicago Bears have long been arguing with their owner, the Chicago Park District, over leases and structural improvements to their land at Soldier Field, suggesting earlier this year that they may even give up their iconic waterfront space. lake for a larger, newer suburban home.
But recently obtained documents show that there may have been another reason the NFL franchise made a bid for Arlington International Racecourse – a game for sports betting.
Just two weeks before the Chicago Bears publicly announced they were making an offer for Arlington, the team president accused the Chicago Park District of refusing to “engage in good faith talks” on the enlargement sports betting opportunities in the stadium, reports WBEZ obtained through a freedom of information request broadcast.
This previously unreported trade-related trade highlights an “underlying factor” that the Bears organization is reportedly seeking to leave the city limits of Chicago, according to a sports economist.
The Bears, however, completely dismissed the potential additional income from advertising and sports betting as a reason for his possible move, with a spokesperson saying on Friday in a pointed two-word statement that the two are “completely unrelated.” .
“You refused to engage in discussions in good faith”
In a memo dated June 3, 2021, Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips wrote to Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly with the headline “Legalized Sports Betting.”
Phillips pointed out that the previous year the Bears had tried to get the Park District to discuss setting up a sports betting site – a place where fans could place bets on matches – near Soldier Field to enjoy the State law of 2019 legalizing sports betting at select sports stadiums in Illinois.
But at the time of the original launch in April 2020, the Bears noted that the NFL had banned sports betting operating in its teams’ stadiums. Interpretations of that ban appear to have softened over the past year, with the Arizona Cardinals turning into last month the first franchise reach an agreement to have a bookmaker located in his stadium. Indianapolis Colts also open a sports betting fair, which will not have physical betting windows on-site, but will have “ambassadors” there to help customers bet online.
But around the time in 2020, Phillips kicked off the creation of a “sportsbook” in the match days of Soldier Field for Bears – “low-key venues” that would look like a sportsbook with the live broadcast of NFL games on television. as well as the display of sports betting lines but do not allow the placement of physical bets. According to the Bears’ proposal, there was money to be made in space advertising.
In return, Phillips offered the Park District 20% of the revenue generated by advertising in that space, according to emails.
But the Bears’ offer was greeted with a brief, blunt statement from the Park District chief, who said the organization had considered the implications of legalizing sports betting in Illinois, which Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law. in June 2019.
“At this time, it would not be productive to pursue the opportunities outlined in your letter,” Kelly wrote to Phillips on November 6, 2020. “In addition, my team is working on a complete design of the park and adjacent open space. at the park North end of Soldier Field We will certainly take your thoughts and opinions into account in due course as the project progresses.
On June 3, 2021, seven months after receiving this letter – and 14 months after making the original pitch – Phillips fired back.
“It is disappointing that it has been over a year since we contacted you and that you refused to engage in good faith discussions about an opportunity that generates revenue for CPD while leveraging the Chicago Bears brand.” , wrote Phillips.
Two weeks later, the Bears have publicly announced that he was bidding for Arlington International Racecourse in the northwest suburb of Arlington Heights, but did not specify what the property would be used for. Speculation, however, was that the Bears intended to move the team to the 326-acre space, where they could take advantage of a new, larger stadium and the potential to build an entertainment space around it. this.
A spokesperson for the Bears declined to tell WBEZ whether the team and the park district have had any further discussions about sports betting since the June 3 memo.
“Our communication with the Chicago Park District will remain between the two parties,” Bears spokesman Scott Hagel said.
The Chicago Park District did not respond to requests for comment.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office made no comment.
But as the Bears publicly announced their offer for the property in Arlington Heights, Lightfoot countered that the Bears’ apparent threat to move the team was “clearly a negotiating tactic,” a tactic in which she noted that the he team had already started.
“Bears announcement comes amid negotiations for improvements to Soldier Field,” Lightfoot said in his June statement. “This is clearly a negotiating tactic the Bears have used before. As a season-long season subscriber and Bears fan, I am committed to keeping the name “Chicago” on our football team. And like most Bears fans, we want the organization to focus on building a winning team on the pitch, finally beating the Packers and being relevant last October. Everything else is noise.
The offer for Arlington Park
The Bears’ eagerness to embark on the sports betting gold rush appears to be growing, even without the Park District.
If the Bears win their bid for Arlington, they’ll buy the property from a gaming industry giant. Kentucky-based Churchill Downs Inc. owns the race track and has announced its final races will be on Saturday.
Churchill Downs also owns a controlling stake in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, Ill., About 15 miles from the track. In June, the Bears announced that they have entered into an agreement with Rivers Casino to make them the team’s official casino sponsor. And, the casino’s online gambling business – BetRivers.com – is reportedly the Bears’ official sports betting partner.
A spokesperson for Churchill Downs declined to comment on his current ties to the Bears or the team’s offer for his Arlington Heights property. A spokesperson for Neil bluhm, the billionaire casino mogul who is president of Rush Street Gaming and of which Rivers Casino is now a sponsor of the Bears.
It is not known when Churchill Downs will announce the winning bid for Arlington Racecourse.
Profitable Sports Betting in Illinois
The first 17 months that sports betting is legal in Illinois gives an indication of how much money is going into the industry.
According to data from the Illinois Gaming Board, Rivers Casino alone has seen more than $ 1 billion wagered on professional sports, either in person at Rivers Casino or through its online betting platform.
In total, nearly $ 5.5 billion – the vast majority of which came from online betting – was wagered on all sports in Illinois from March 2020 to July 2021.
Of that $ 5.5 billion, nearly $ 5.3 billion comes from online betting, according to a WBEZ analysis of state gaming company data.
If the Bears end up staying at Soldier Field, a future bookie near the stadium would cost the state $ 10 million for an initial license with an additional $ 5 million in annual renewal. Now the Chicago Sun-Times recently reported that a Chicago city councilor offers every sportsbook in the city to pay a relatively small one-time fee of $ 50,000 to the city and $ 25,000 each year thereafter.
All of this comes as Lightfoot and his administration attempt to get the town’s casino going, as permitted by state law of 2019, but have had to extend the deadline for requests for proposals amid reported lukewarm interest from the gaming industry.
“The frustration of the Bears is completely understandable”
June’s surprise announcement that the Bears were signaling an upcoming move to the suburbs is just the latest in a long saga of its homeport, and comes less than 20 years after the city ushered in a Soldier renovation. Field which ultimately cost $ 660. million.
While the Bears have a lease to play Soldier Field until 2033, the Chicago Tribune reported the cost to the team’s bottom line to break that lease would amount to peanuts.
The construction of a new stadium – as expensive as it may be – could come with such appetizing amenities for a historic NFL franchise with a passionate fan base, such as being able to accommodate more fans than Soldier Field. a capacity of 61,500, a tiny amount compared to other NFL stadiums.
A new arena with, say, a retractable roof or the capacity to seat thousands more could prove appealing to fans and a team known to have suffered from the infamously cold Chicago winters. It could also mean extra money to host major events like the Super Bowl.
But the extra money to be made from sports betting and the advertising that goes with it is the equivalent of driving football up.
“Sports betting is going to become a staple and an important source of income for sports teams and sports leagues in the future,” said Marc Ganis, sports economist at Sportscorp Ltd.
But having to wait for an owner’s approval for an expansion like a sports betting site, instead of just building on land they own, could prove tiring for the Bears, Ganis said.
“This is an example of the limitations of the team and why they would want to build their own facility,” said Ganis.
“In itself, that’s not reason enough to relocate and build a multi-billion dollar stadium. But that’s one of the factors, ”Ganis said. “It’s an underlying factor, which means the Bears can’t do this because they don’t control their own destiny and they don’t control their own building and their own land.”
“The Bears’ frustration (with the Chicago Park District) is quite understandable in the context of what else is going on in Chicago, what the state legislature has authorized and what is going on around. the league, ”he said.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow it @tonyjarnold.