Newly obtained documents reveal the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Park District were rekindling a long-established rift in the months leading up to the Bears’ announcement that the team had placed a bid on a massive piece of property in the city’s northwest suburbs.
Documents show that at an April meeting hosted by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Bears CEO and President Ted Phillips re-upped a years-long issue for the Bears: the state of conditions at Soldier Field.
Phillips allegedly asked for engineering reports regarding the infrastructure of the 97-year-old facility, which is owned by the Chicago Park District.
But in an email a week after the meeting, Park Superintendent Michael Kelly alleged that the National Football League franchise already had those documents, and Kelly pointedly accused the Bears president of a “propensity for historical misstatements.”
The exchange offers more insight into the bitterness between the parties over the past year, as the Bears have not tamped down public speculation that the team may be looking to build a new arena on suburban turf.
Earlier this week, WBEZ also exclusively reported on documents in which Phillips accused the park district of refusing to “engage in good faith discussions” about creating a sports betting lounge within Soldier Field.
The documents depicting the rift between the Bears and Chicago Park District make plain why the team would want to pursue its options in Chicago’s suburbs, according to the mayor of Arlington Heights, who hopes to lure the team to his community.
Bears’ leadership appear concerned about Soldier Field’s upkeep
The testy exchange over Soldier Field repairs apparently began after an April 14, 2021, meeting hosted by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Phillips allegedly stated at the meeting that he had not received reports on the condition and infrastructure of Soldier Field, Kelly summarized in an April 22 letter to Phillips.
“It is exactly this propensity for historical misstatements that has forced recent communications between us to be reduced to writing,” Kelly wrote, teeing off what would become a weeks-long testy exchange between the two.
Kelly went on to accuse Phillips of spending hours reviewing exactly those documents with the team’s engineering consultant. The park district superintendent then attached documents dating back to at least 2011 pertaining to the structural inspection reports at Soldier Field and asked for written acknowledgement the team received it “to avoid further confusion,” he wrote.
Kelly copied Lightfoot and even Phillips’ boss, Bears Chairman George H. McCaskey, on the letter.
Eleven days later, Phillips in an email noted Kelly’s affront but didn’t return fire.
“In an attempt to move forward in a more collaborative manner, I will refrain from reacting to your mention of a ‘propensity for historical misstatements,’ ” Phillips wrote.
The Bears president then pointed out that the documents Kelly sent are not what he’d been seeking for four years. Phillips attached a letter to Kelly dated Feb. 23, 2017 with the heading “Routine Maintenance.” In that email, Phillips had requested the park district provide life expectancy reports for all facets of Soldier Field, including a list of maintenance and repairs related to the plumbing, equipment, electrical, elevator, roof, structure and more.
“Unfortunately, little progress has been made on our request, more than four years later,” Phillips wrote in his May 3 letter.
He then goes on to claim he’d been trying to “provide a fuller picture of the difficulties we have had trying to communicate” ever since the team won a favorable outcome at an arbitration in 2020.
“Unfortunately, you have rejected every attempt at a meeting or even a phone call to ‘clear the air,’ ” Phillips wrote. “I remain willing to meet with you in order to work towards a more mutually beneficial business relationship.”
The following week, Kelly responded — this time without any insults.
He wrote that the park district had already provided the Bears with the most recent annual report regarding Soldier Field maintenance in November along with other updates since then.
“I fully expect this collaborative approach to continue and welcome your participation in any manner that you feel is best,” Kelly concluded in his letter dated May 12.
The exchange appears to end with a May 17 email from Phillips, in which he states the reports the park district has turned over “provides only a limited view of the overall building health.”
Phillips also requests the park district show the team a 5-year capital plan for Soldier Field.
One month later, the Bears publicly announced the team had placed a bid to purchase the 326-acre Arlington International Racecourse.
“For me, it … explains why they actually submitted a bid for Arlington”
In the months since, the team has done little to quash speculation that the Bears’ desire is to construct its own stadium to put an end to the team’s repeated disputes with its landlord.
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.
Nearly 20 years ago, the city broke ground on renovating Soldier Field, preserving the facade but inserting an addition that’s been derided as looking like a spaceship.
The open air stadium seats a capacity of 61,500 fans, a significantly smaller number compared to other NFL stadiums, and leaves players and fans susceptible to the notorious Chicago cold and snow.
A spokesman for the Bears would not comment for this story.
After initial publication of this story, Lightfoot’s administration confirmed on Wednesday her meeting with Bears leadership and a spokesperson said the mayor “is committed to continued engagement with their team.”
“The contents of the conversation included ways in which the city and Park District can enhance the fan experience at Soldier Field,” a Lightfoot spokesperson said in a statement. “Soldier Field’s strategic location on the Museum Campus and near the booming South Loop creates opportunity to include more dining options and entertainment activities, and we will explore that alongside the Park District and Bears leadership.”
The creation of a sportsbook, the mayor’s office said, was not discussed at the meeting.
WBEZ previously reported that the Bears wrote to the park district about creating a place where fans could place bets on sports, along with a betting lounge inside Soldier Field 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.
The team offered the Chicago Park District 20% of the advertising revenue, but Kelly rejected the idea.
A park district spokesperson did not respond to WBEZ’s questions.
But for the mayor of Arlington Heights, home to Arlington International Racecourse that the Bears have bid on, the exchange between Phillips and Kelly showcases the reasons the team could be looking to be its own landlord.
“For me, it just kind of explains why they actually submitted a bid for Arlington,” Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes told WBEZ on Tuesday.
Hayes, who has been supportive of a Bears move to his northwest suburb, said he would see no issues with the team owning and operating its own facility in his village — or building a sportsbook (a place where fans could place bets on games) on the Arlington Park property.
“I don’t have any personal knowledge, but I read sports columns and I hear sports talk radio and clearly the Bears want to own their own facility,” Hayes said. “It really makes sense to me.”
“We’re very excited about the opportunity if it comes to fruition,” he said.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.