The Chicago Bears’ Rift With The Park District Widens Over Stalled Sports Betting Lounge At Soldier Field

WBEZ obtained emails that show the NFL franchise’s frustration as the Chicago Park District — which owns Soldier Field — rejected efforts to open a sports betting lounge.

Soldier Field Chicago Bears game
Cincinnati Bengals kick off to the Chicago Bears to start the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. Newly obtained emails show the Bears have been trying for a year to get a sportsbook at Soldier Field. Kamil Krzaczynski / Associated Press
Soldier Field Chicago Bears game
Cincinnati Bengals kick off to the Chicago Bears to start the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. Newly obtained emails show the Bears have been trying for a year to get a sportsbook at Soldier Field. Kamil Krzaczynski / Associated Press

The Chicago Bears’ Rift With The Park District Widens Over Stalled Sports Betting Lounge At Soldier Field

WBEZ obtained emails that show the NFL franchise’s frustration as the Chicago Park District — which owns Soldier Field — rejected efforts to open a sports betting lounge.

The Chicago Bears have long feuded with their landlord, the Chicago Park District, over leases and structural improvements at their home turf at Soldier Field, suggesting earlier this year it may even abandon its iconic lakefront space for a bigger, newer suburban home.

But newly obtained documents show there may have been another reason that pushed the NFL franchise to make a bid for Arlington International Racecourse — a play for sports betting.

Just two weeks before the Chicago Bears publicly announced it was putting in a bid for Arlington, the team’s president accused the Chicago Park District of refusing “to engage in good faith discussions” about expanding sports betting opportunities at the stadium, records WBEZ obtained through a freedom of information request show.

This previously unreported exchange related to sports betting sheds light on an “underlying factor” why the Bears organization would seek to leave Chicago’s city limits, according to one sports economist.

The Bears, however, completely dismissed the potential additional revenues from advertising and sports betting as a reason for its possible move, with a spokesman saying in a pointed, two-word statement on Friday that the two are “completely unrelated.”

“You have refused to engage in good faith discussions”

In a memo dated June 3, 2021, Bears president and CEO, Ted Phillips, wrote to Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly with the heading “Legalized Sports Betting.”

Phillips outlined that for the previous year, the Bears had been trying to get the Park District to discuss the creation of a sportsbook — a place where fans could place bets on games — near Soldier Field to take advantage of the 2019 state law that legalized sports betting at certain sports stadiums in Illinois.

But at the time of the original pitch in April of 2020, the Bears noted that the NFL had a ban in place on sportsbooks operating within its teams’ stadiums. Interpretations of that ban appear to have loosened in the past year, with the Arizona Cardinals last month reportedly becoming the first franchise to reach an agreement to have a sportsbook located in its stadium. The Indianapolis Colts are also opening a sportsbook lounge, which won’t have physical on-site betting windows, but will have “ambassadors” there to help patrons wager online.

But at the time in 2020, Phillips pitched the creation of a “sports betting lounge” within Soldier Field for Bears game days — “discreet location(s)” that would look and feel like a sportsbook with the live broadcast of NFL games on televisions along with the display of sports betting lines but not allow the placing of physical bets. Under the Bears’ proposal, there was money to be made in the advertising in the space.

In exchange, Phillips offered the Park District 20% of the revenue generated from the advertising in this space, according to emails.

But the offer from the Bears was met with a short, brusk statement from the Park District’s leader, who said the organization had been considering the implications of the legalization of 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 Nov. 6, 2020. “Additionally, my team is working on a comprehensive design for the park and open space adjacent to the North end of Soldier Field. We will certainly consider your thoughts and opinions at the appropriate time as the project moves forward.”

On June 3, 2021, seven months after receiving that letter — and 14 months after making the original pitch — Phillips fired back.

“It is disappointing that it is over a year since we reached out to you and you have refused to engage in good faith discussions about an opportunity that generates revenue for the CPD while leveraging the Chicago Bears brand,” Phillips wrote.

Two weeks later, the Bears publicly announced that it was putting in a bid for the horse track Arlington International Racecourse in northwest suburban 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 it could enjoy a new larger stadium and the potential to build out entertainment space around it.

A Bears spokesman would not tell WBEZ whether the team and the park district have had further discussions about sports betting since the June 3 memo.

“Our communication with the Chicago Park District will remain between the two parties,” said Bears spokesman Scott Hagel.

The Chicago Park District did not respond to requests for comment.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office did not comment.

But at the time the Bears publicly announced its bid for the property in Arlington Heights, Lightfoot countered that the Bears apparent threat to move the team was “clearly a negotiating tactic,” one that she noted the team had embarked on before.

“The announcement from the Bears comes in the midst of negotiations for improvements at Soldier Field,” Lightfoot said in her June statement. “This is clearly a negotiating tactic that the Bears have used before. As a season ticketholder and longtime Bears fan, I am committed to keeping the ‘Chicago’ name in our football team. 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.”

The bid for Arlington Park

The Bears’ eagerness to get into the sports betting gold rush appears to be growing, even without the Park District.

If the Bears wins its bid for Arlington, it would be purchasing the property from a giant in the gambling industry. Kentucky-based Churchill Downs Inc. owns the race track and has announced its final races will be held on Saturday.

Churchill Downs also has a majority share of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, Ill. — about 15 miles away from the track. In June, the Bears announced it had made a deal with Rivers Casino to make it the team’s official casino sponsor. And, the casino’s online gambling enterprise — BetRivers.com — would be the Bears’ official sports betting partner.

A spokesman for Churchill Downs would not comment on its current ties to the Bears or the team’s bid for its Arlington Heights property. Neither would a spokesman for Neil Bluhm, the billionaire casino magnate who is chairman of Rush Street Gaming and whose Rivers Casino is now a sponsor of the Bears.

It’s unclear when Churchill Downs will announce the winning bid for the Arlington racecourse.

Lucrative sports betting in Illinois

The first 17 months of sports betting being legal in Illinois gives an indication as to how much money flows into the industry.

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, according to Illinois Gaming Board data.

In all, nearly $5.5 billion — the vast majority of which came from online bets — has been wagered on all sports in Illinois from March 2020 to July 2021.

Of that $5.5 billion, almost $5.3 billion is from online bets, according to a WBEZ analysis of state gaming board data.

If the Bears end up staying at Soldier Field, a future sportsbook near the stadium would cost $10 million to the state for an initial license with another $5 million in annual renewal. Now, the Chicago Sun-Times recently reported that a Chicago alderman is proposing each sportsbook in the city pay a comparatively miniscule one-time fee of $50,000 to the city and $25,000 each year afterward.

This all comes as Lightfoot and her administration has been trying to get the city’s own casino off the ground, as permitted by the 2019 state law, but has had to extend the deadline for requests for proposals amid reported lukewarm interest from the gambling industry.

“The Bears’ frustration is completely understandable”

The surprise June announcement that the Bears were signaling a future move to the suburbs is just the latest in a long saga about its home base, and comes less than 20 years after the city broke ground on a renovation of Soldier Field that ended up costing $660 million.

While the Bears have a lease to play at Soldier Field until 2033, the Chicago Tribune reported the cost to the team’s bottom line to break that lease would amount to peanuts.

Constructing a new stadium — as expensive as it may be — could come with such appetizing amenities to a storied NFL franchise with a passionate fan base, such as being able to seat more fans than the 61,500 capacity Soldier Field, a miniscule amount compared to other NFL stadiums.

A new arena with, say, a retractable roof or an ability to seat thousands more people could prove enticing to fans and a team known for suffering Chicago’s infamously bitterly cold winters. That could also mean additional money in hosting major events like the Super Bowl.

But the additional money to be gained from sports betting and the advertising that goes along with it is the equivalent of spiking the football.

“Sports betting is going to be a fixture and an important revenue stream for sports teams and sports leagues going forward,” said Marc Ganis, a sports economist with Sportscorp Ltd.

But having to wait for approval from a landlord for an expansion such as a sportsbook, instead of just building out on land they own, could prove tiring for the Bears, Ganis said.

“This is an example of the limitations that are on the team and why they would want to build their own facility,” Ganis said.

“In and of itself, it’s not a big enough reason to move and to build a multi-billion dollar stadium. But it is one of the factors,” Ganis said. “It’s an underlying factor, meaning that 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 completely understandable in the context of what else is going on in Chicago, what the state legislature permitted and what’s going on around the league,” he said.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.