With less than two weeks to go before Chicago’s election, Mayor Lori Lightfoot isn’t laughing at the Bears anymore.
Her first reaction to the team’s interest in Arlington Heights was to mock the NFL franchise and encourage its leaders to “focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers finally and being relevant past October.”
But now that the Bears have dropped a landmine in front of the mayor’s reelection campaign by closing on the former Arlington Heights racetrack property they hope to transform into a modern stadium, Lightfoot faces a tough situation that’s largely out of her control but will nevertheless draw criticism of her combative style.
If the Bears ultimately leave the city — which isn’t a forgone conclusion, though Wednesday’s closing of the suburban land deal is a significant step — Lightfoot runs the risk of being known as the mayor who lost the Bears. It’s a lose-lose for the incumbent. Her initial, antagonistic remark in 2021 to the team exploring the former Arlington International racecourse property could be used against her by critics who argue that she could’ve done more to keep the Bears from making a move. Her opponents have hammered her for it on the campaign trail.
In the weeks after the Bears started flirting with the suburbs, Lightfoot pivoted from ridiculing the team to demanding that they explain what they want from the city. She then created a special commission to explore potential ways to place a dome over Soldier Field and make it a more attractive option for the Bears. Lightfoot has never said how the city would pay for a $2.2 billion dome over Soldier Field, but has offered it as a potential option for the team instead of Arlington Heights.
Realistically, there isn’t much Lightfoot can do to keep the Bears from exiting to the suburbs. If the team can pull together the financing it needs, it’s going to leave, and that has little to do with City Hall.
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But that won’t stop some people from blaming her, anyway.
“The plan that she came up with was a little ‘too little, too late,’” said Chicago political strategist Delmarie Cobb. “There’s still a great deal of pride in being one of the original franchisees for the NFL, and to lose that to Arlington Heights, I mean, that’s a wound.”
The unfolding situation with the Bears has drawn mixed responses from rival candidates. Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, activist Ja’Mal Green and 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer have said the city should just let the Bears go. Businessman Willie Wilson has made the unlikely suggestion of bringing another team to Chicago. State Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner and 4th Ward Ald. Sophia King have said the city should work to keep the Bears — but only to a certain point. Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, meanwhile, said the team’s departure seems assured “due in part to the defiant nature of the Lightfoot administration.”
As the news broke Wednesday of the land closing, Lightfoot’s campaign released a statement that lamented the development but also struck an optimistic tone.
“Today’s news … has been anticipated for some time. Nonetheless, all of us die-hard Bears fans, the mayor included, included, know and believe that the Chicago Bears should remain in Chicago,” she said.
“So now that the land deal has closed,” Lightfoot’s statement continued, “we have an even better opportunity to continue making the business case as to why the Bears should remain in Chicago and why adaptations to Soldier Field can meet and exceed the Bears’ future needs.”
If the Bears do leave, it’s been clear from the beginning that Lightfoot would face blame from a segment of residents who would view that with the same revulsion reserved for the 2019 double-doink missed field goal. But the city doesn’t have the money or available land to create the sort of modern stadium the Bears want, and she would also catch heat from good government enthusiasts if she suggested spending public money for the multibillion-dollar private franchise.
University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor emeritus Christopher Mooney said a few decades ago, any sign of the Bears one day departing the city would have caused widespread heartbreak. But even diehard Bears fans in the city might sympathize with the tough spot Lightfoot is in now after public opinion has begun to sour on sports teams getting sweetheart deals on the backs of taxpayers, he added.
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“This game that these billionaires play with cities in which they own sports teams has gotten kind of old, right?” Mooney said. “There’s less sympathy than there once was. … The reactions, as far as I can tell, have been a collective yawn. I don’t think there’s a huge hue and cry. I don’t see massive public outrage. I don’t see the mayor going to the mat.”
But Cobb said even if it would be politically fraught for the city to entice the Bears to stay in Chicago, Lightfoot should have been more diplomatic, given that revenue would be ceded to Arlington Heights should the team depart from Soldier Field.
“I just think that it was the accumulation of insults or slights the Bears felt from this mayor, and of course, that’s what her opponents are going to use against her because they’re going to say, ‘This is more of the same. And in this case, look at the results. We’re losing a major asset.’”
Founded in Decatur, the Bears moved to Chicago in 1921 and played at Wrigley Field for 50 years. In 1971, they shifted to Soldier Field, where the Chicago Park District became their landlord. The Bears pay $6.48 million per year under the current lease, which runs through 2033, but the team can exit early by paying a penalty.
Should the Bears pack up and leave under Lightfoot’s tenure, she will have been the first Chicago mayor to preside over the exodus of a major sports team in the city’s modern history. In 1960, the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals left for St. Louis before eventually settling in Phoenix. And Gov. James R. Thompson famously led the push for the Illinois General Assembly to approve a new tax-subsidized, $167 million White Sox stadium at literally the 11th hour to convince the Major League Baseball team to not pack up for St. Petersburg, Fla.
Two decades ago the Bears made a similar threat to leave Chicago. But back then, the team nabbed a deal with Mayor Richard M. Daley that contained a mostly taxpayer subsidized $632 million renovation of Soldier Field, one of the largest government contributions in the history of professional sports.
Should the Bears leave this time, Lightfoot will hardly be the only leader of a major city where fans are rooting for a team that doesn’t technically play within city limits. Lightfoot often points out the New York Giants and Jets both play in New Jersey, the San Francisco 49ers are based in suburban Santa Clara and the L.A. Rams’ new SoFi stadium is in Inglewood, California.
As for whether Lightfoot’s ribbing of the Bears’ latest record was a misstep, Mooney said the mayor was simply sharing a sentiment that other fans of the team know all too well.
“That particular biting comment was not a comment that only her alone made,” Mooney said “I bet there’s lots of people in the city of Chicago who were saying the same thing: ‘Who cares? If you ever win a game every now and then, maybe we’ll care about you. Nineteen eighty-five was a long time ago.’”