The McCaskey family’s exploration of a possible NFL stadium site in the suburbs has gotten the attention of Chicago’s mayor.
Lori Lightfoot, who originally laughed at the threat of the Bears relocating from Soldier Field, told the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board that the city is evaluating ways it can make the 97-year-old stadium more acceptable over the long term.
But Lightfoot conceded the city of Chicago is limited both by its already stressed financial resources and the land-locked site of the stadium.
“I am a Bears fan,’’ Lightfoot told the Sun-Times in a zoom interview on Monday. “I want the Bears to stay in the city of Chicago. And we are willing to work with them to try to address their concerns. But, I’ve got to do it in a way that is fiscally prudent and doesn’t preclude other uses in that stadium … That stadium sits on a museum campus.’’
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The Bears are owned by the heirs of George Halas, with 98-year-old Virginia McCaskey atop the organization structure. George McCaskey, one of Halas’ grandchildren, has been the team’s chairman since 2010.
Ted Phillips, the team’s president and CEO, confirmed in June the Bears have put in a bid for the property.
“We recently submitted a bid to purchase the Arlington International Racecourse property,’’ Phillips said in a statement. “It’s our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we’re doing what’s best for our organization and its future. If selected, this step allows us to further evaluate the property and its potential.’’
Their lease at Soldier Field runs through 2033. They potentially could partner with the Neil Bluhm, the principal owner of Rivers Casino, to develop a complex that would be the equal of the new stadium complexes that have been built in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Dallas.
While the Bears are a flagship franchise of the NFL, they have never owned their own stadium. They were tenants of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field before moving to Soldier Field in 1971.
Lightfoot initially said she was not concerned about losing the Bears to Arlington Heights. She dismissed the team’s interest in the suburban location as a negotiation tactic.
“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,” Lightfoot said. “Everything else is noise.”
She assured the Sun-Times she wants to work with the Bears to keep the stadium viable.
“We are evaluating ways in which we can enhance the fan experience at Soldier Field,’’ Lightfoot said. “I know that it can be better. I’ve been to other stadiums across the country where the fan experience is far superior to what we have at Soldier Field.”
Soldier Field was renovated in 2003. That project cost $632 million and reduced the stadium capacity to 61,500 from the previous capacity of 66,944. It is the smallest stadium in the NFL, with no chance of attracting a Super Bowl or NCAA Championship game.
While a specific plan has not been released, it’s likely a suburban stadium project would include a retractable roof and seating capacity of at least 80,000.
Lightfoot was asked by the Sun-Times if there is a way to add a roof to Soldier Field. Her answer was telling.
“You can’t always get what you want,’’ she said, parroting the Rolling Stones. “But you can try sometimes and get what you need.’’