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Is Betting Lounge Rift Behind Bears' Threat to Relocate?

Paul Steinbach

The Chicago Bears have hosted games at Soldier Field for 50 years, save the 2002 season during which the lakefront stadium was under renovation. The team stunned the NFL world this past spring when it intimated that it might leave its longtime home for the suburbs due to disagreements over leases and structural improvements the Bears have had with the Chicago Park District, which owns the facility.

Based on emails obtained by local NPR affiliate WBEZ, another reason the team has threatened to move revolves around the park district's refusal to allow Soldier Field to house a sports gambling lounge.

Just two weeks before the Chicago Bears publicly announced it was putting in a bid for Arlington International Racecourse, 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.

As reported by WBEZ, Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips sent a memo to Chicago Park District superintendent Michael Kelly dated June 3, 2021 and 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, WBEZ reported.

The Soldier Field lounge was pitched as “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, money would come from the advertising in the space, with the district getting a 20 percent cut, according to Phillips' proposal.

“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, 14 months after making the original pitch, Phillips responded, “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."

Two weeks later, the Bears organization 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, WBEZ reported.

According to WBEZ, 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.”

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