The Chicago Bears announced they placed a bid to purchase Arlington Heights back in June, revealing their potential interest in leaving Soldier Field in favor of a huge new venue with myriad possibilities.
A week after that initial announcement, the team announced its first-ever multi-year partnership with BetRivers and Rivers Casino, a sports book and gambling entity whose majority owner also happens to be Churchill Downs — with Churchill Downs owning the land on which Arlington Heights is built.
The Bears have signed a lease that is slated to keep them at Soldier Field through 2033, but a July 2 report by the Chicago Tribune revealed that they should be able to break their lease at Solider Field in an affordable fashion by 2026.
Now, in a well-researched September 20 report by Tony Arnold of WBEZ Chicago, new information has come to light about a “rift” between the team and the Chicago Park District, who leased Soldier Field to the Bears.
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Bears Reported to Be Irked at Chicago Park District Over Sports Betting Opportunities
In his September 20 article titled: “The Chicago Bears’ Rift With The Park District Widens Over Stalled Sports Betting Lounge At Soldier Field,” Arnold shared some revealing information he had learned about communications between Bears brass and members of the Park District:
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.
For their part, the Bears denied the idea that sports betting was a primary reason for considering the move, telling WBEZ in a statement that their interest in exploring other venues is “completely unrelated” to sports betting. But that’s not what the paper trail suggests.
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Bears’ CEO Ted Phillips Expressed Frustration Over Betting Issue Via Email
According to Arnold, Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips had been trying to negotiate with the park District for over a year regarding the addition of a sportsbook, but to no avail. Arnold dug up some emails that revealed the two have been at loggerheads about the issue for quite some time:
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 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.
Arnold also shared snippets of an email he uncovered from Phillips in response:
“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.”
This exchange at least partly explains why the Bears put in a bid at Arlington, which they announced just two weeks later. Phillips and team chairman George McCaskey are clearly trying to explore other opportunities for fan engagement and increased revenue, and if their current landlords aren’t going to listen to their hopes for the future, McCaskey and Phillips could very likely find someone else who will.