The Chicago Bears have been playing at Soldier Field since 1971, but they might not be playing there much longer. The Bears announced on Wednesday that they have entered a purchase agreement to buy the Arlington International Racecourse property, which is located in Arlington Heights, Illinois, a suburb that sits roughly 35 miles outside of downtown Chicago.
The Bears said in June that they made a bid for the land because they wanted to explore the possibility of building a new stadium there. With the purchase agreement now in place, the Bears will now soon be the proud owners of a 326-acre piece of land that will easily fit any new stadium design they might have in mind. In anticipation of the Bears buying the property, the Arlington Heights village board approved a zoning change in June that will allow a football stadium to be built on the land, which is currently occupied by a horse racing track.
Basically, the door is now completely open for the Bears to start the process of leaving downtown Chicago, although the process might not get started for another year or two. The company that previously owned the property, Churchill Downs, announced on Wednesday that the $197.2 million sale isn't expected to be finalized until late 2022 or early 2023.
Team president Ted Phillips said the move was all about ensuring a strong future for the Bears.
"Much work remains to be completed, including working closely with the Village of Arlington Heights and surrounding communities, before we can close on this transaction," Phillips said in a statement. "Our goal is to chart a path forward that allows our team to thrive on the field, Chicagoland to prosper from this endeavor, and the Bears organization to be ensured a strong future."
Despite the fact that the Bears have one foot out the door at Soldier Field, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot wrote on Tuesday night that she is committed to keeping the Bears in her city.
My statement still stands on the Bears: my admin remains committed to continuing the work to keep the team in Chicago.— Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) September 29, 2021
As I have said numerous times, our door in City Hall remains open. https://t.co/7pm7mLtCOc
One potential wrench that stands in the way of a move to Arlington Heights for the Bears is the fact that the team has a lease at Soldier Field that runs through the 2033 season.
LIghtfoot was asked about the lease back in May and she seemed pretty convinced that the Bears wouldn't be able to get out of it.
"I've seen a couple of reports [of a possible move] but a couple of data points that I think you should be aware of are the Bears have a lease with Soldier Field until 2033 and the NFL doesn't let any teams break their leases," Lightfoot said at the time.
Of course, that's not exactly true. The Chicago Tribune did some digging back in July and found that the Bears would be able to get out of the lease in 2026 by paying a penalty of $84 million. If the Bears aren't ready to buy the lease out in 2026, the fee would actually go down each year through 2033.
If the Bears started the process of planning a new stadium at some point next year and the stadium took four years to complete -- from the design stage to the final day of construction -- they could cut an $84 million check to the city of Chicago in 2026 and start playing at their new stadium then.
LIghtfoot has spent the past several months downplaying the possibility of the Bears leaving downtown Chicago. Back in June, she said the bid for the Arlington land was just a negotiation tactic to get the city to help with the cost of any potential renovations at Soldier Field.
"This announcement from the Bears comes in the midst of negotiations for improvements at Soldier Field. This is clearly a negotiating tactic that the Bears have used before," Lightfoot said at the time.
The mayor also added that she wanted the Bears to focus on more important things, like beating the Packers.
"As a season-ticket holder and longtime Bears fan, I am committed to keeping the 'Chicago' name in our football team," Lightfoot said. "And 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. Everything else is noise."
With the team's purchase agreement now in place, Lightfoot might start taking the Bears' threat to leave more seriously, but in reality, it's probably too late for that.
The Bears wouldn't have bid on the property in Arlington Heights if they weren't serious about moving and now that they have the land, it won't be surprising if they're playing there before the end of the decade.
Although the Bears have been looking into making renovations at Soldier Field, they likely came to the conclusion that it was cost prohibitive unless the city contributed a major amount of money. A renovation of Soldier Field in 2004 cost $690 million, according to the Chicago Tribune, and a renovation now would likely cost even more. One big downside to Soldier Field is that it's the smallest stadium in the NFL. The stadium, which was built in 1924, only seats 61,500 and due to spacial constraints, it's unlikely that number could ever be expanded by much.