Photo Credit: cheddar- / Flickr.com
Football season is well and truly underway, and so, apparently, is football stadium subsidy season. First it was the Buffalo Bills, and now it’s the Chicago Bears, whose owners started the process of purchasing land that would allow the team to move from its current home at Soldier Field in actual Chicago to the suburb of Arlington Heights.
There’s already, of course, been plenty of talk of what Arlington Heights might or might not offer in the way of taxpayer funds for the new stadium, and whether Chicago should pay up to prevent the relocation from occurring at all.
Interestingly, there’s also early, concerted pushback from state lawmakers — rare in this sort of situation — with one introducing a new piece of legislation that would compel the Bears to make a good-faith effort to allow new owners or even the public to take over the team and keep it at Soldier Field.
Here are the facts of the case: The Bears initiated a purchase of a land, currently a racetrack, in Arlington Heights, but won’t close the deal until next year at the earliest, leaving ample time for politicking. The Mayor of Arlington Heights, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot are all doing the thing where they say taxpayer money isn’t on the table, but they mean that it isn’t on the table only because the team hasn’t released a formal ask yet. None of them are saying “no,” they’re just saying “not yet, but probably eventually.”
Since this will just be a move within a metro area, the economic case for taxpayers subsidizing it is even more dubious than the usual one wherein teams move from city to city claiming they will bring massive economic rewards with them. As economist J.C. Bradbury has shown with his studies looking at the Atlanta Braves move from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs, there’s no there there on the economic benefits front from shifting a team a few miles.
And the Bears have already benefited from quite a bit of public largesse. Just two decades ago, Illinois state and Chicago taxpayers kicked in more than $400 million to renovate Soldier Field — a cost which will total about $660 million once interest is factored in. The bonds issued for those renovations won’t be paid off until 2033.
The Bears have a lease at Soldier Field through that same year, 2033, which would require them to compensate Chicago with $87 million if it were broken in 2026, with decreasing amounts in later years. But in the context of a stadium that will cost several billion dollars, that’s chump change. And while Soldier Field would still have Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire as tenants were the Bears to leave, the point of the renovation for taxpayers and local leaders was not, presumably, to have a pretty nice soccer stadium, but to have a long-term home for the city’s NFL team.
That’s where today’s state lawmakers have come in. A resolution sponsored by three members of the Illinois House would direct the legislature to “take all necessary steps to ensure that no state or local taxpayer money is used in the construction of new professional sport stadiums.”
Far more ambitious, a bill sponsored by State Sen. Robert Peters, in whose district Soldier Field is located, would bar any professional sports team that plays in a stadium that benefited from public funding — which the Bears undeniably do — from breaking a lease to relocate without giving the local municipality or other local buyers the opportunity to purchase a majority stake in the team first.
“If the owners want to move the team, that’s fine, but they owe a debt to the city and its taxpayers, who have been paying for their stadium,” Peters said in a statement. (Here’s a good interview with Peters talking through some of the proposed law’s mechanics.)
The bill is modeled off of what’s known as the “Art Modell Law” in Ohio, which was passed in the wake of the Cleveland Browns leaving to become the Baltimore Ravens. As I explained in my book, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (who is now governor) used that law to sue the Columbus Crew in 2018, in an effort to prevent them from leaving Ohio for Austin, Texas. The suit was one of several factors that ultimately resulted in the former owner of the Crew selling the team to local investors.
I have no idea whether the rest of the Illinois legislature would go along with such a proposal, but I love the idea: Not that I think its widespread adoption would result in much public ownership of sports franchises, mind you, but because it would discourage teams from seeking subsidies, lest someday they want to move and be forced to consider public or other local ownership offers.
As always, we all need to remember that we may love our sports teams but they don’t love us back. They’re corporations with power that needs to be matched by the power of the public. It’s good to see at least some lawmakers in Illinois rising to meet the challenge.
This post initially appeared in a slightly different form on the author’s Substack, Boondoggle.
Pat Garofalo is the author of The Billionaire Boondoggle: How Our Politicians Let Corporations and Bigwigs Steal Our Money and Jobs, the Boondoggle newsletter, and the director of state and local policy at the American Economic Liberties Project.