For the 101 years of the Chicago Bears' existence, two subjects have been constants: quarterbacks and home stadiums. While fans are still reveling in the selection of quarterback Justin Fields in this year’s draft, the stadium subject has become a hot topic once again.
In early June, the team announced that it placed a bid to purchase the Arlington International Racecourse, a horse-racing track located in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and owned by Churchill Downs Incorporated, which also owns the iconic track that is home to the Kentucky Derby.
Churchill Downs announced in February that the 90-plus-year-old track was going up for sale. The Bears are among multiple bidders for the 326-acre property. Even if the franchise was declared the winning bidder, that doesn’t guarantee the Bears will be moving anytime soon. There are multiple hurdles that the team would need to clear, not to mention the fact that the team has a lease with Soldier Field that runs through 2030.
This also is not the first time the Bears have shown an interest in relocating, either, as the team struggles with the challenges of calling the NFL’s oldest stadium home. Soldier Field underwent a massive renovation in 2002, which some will argue did more harm than good, as the venue lost its status as a National Historic Landmark a few years after the project’s completion.
With a relationship that goes back 50 years, the Chicago Bears and Soldier Field will forever be linked. But plenty of other historic NFL franchises have gotten new homes, and maybe it’s finally time for the Bears to do so. Here are five reasons why the Bears should relocate from Soldier Field.
1. The Bears have never owned their own stadium
Throughout the franchise’s history, the Bears have never exactly had a home to call their own. In 1920, the inaugural season, the then-Decatur Staleys played at Staley Field in Decatur, Illinois. From 1921-70, the Bears played at Wrigley Field, home of MLB’s Chicago Cubs. The team played the first game of the 1970 season at Dyche Stadium, the former home of the Northwestern Wildcats, before finishing things out at Wrigley Field. In 1971, the Bears moved to Soldier Field, which is owned by the Chicago Park District, and have been there since, except when the stadium was under renovation in 2002. That season, the Bears played their home games at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
2. The Arlington International Racecourse site offers more convenience than Soldier Field
The track is located in Arlington Heights, Illinois, a suburb that's roughly 40 minutes northwest of downtown Chicago. It can be accessed by four different roadways, public transportation (Pace and Metra) stops outside the venue, and it has its own parking (more on those aspects later). Arlington is closer to Chicago's O'Hare Airport than Soldier Field is, and it avoids the traffic congestion of downtown Chicago. Arlington will be easier to reach for suburban residents, although city residents may have a longer trip depending on what part they come from. But it comes with the territory when new venues are built.
3. The Bears could do more with this property
With the park district owning Soldier Field, the Bears have always been at the city's mercy. Having their own stadium will allow them to set their own seating capacity, seeing as Soldier Field is among the smallest NFL stadiums at 61,500 seats. They could also put a retractable roof or dome on the venue if they so desire, meaning the in-game experience should be more enjoyable whether it’s August (one of Chicago’s warmest months) or during the winter. Lake Michigan would no longer have an effect on the playing conditions either.
A roof, along with greater seating capacity, could put the Bears in better position to finally host a Super Bowl down the line. Other major sporting events, such as college basketball’s Final Four or the WWE's Wrestlemania (Chicago last hosted in 2006) could also be possibilities, as well more concerts year-round. Additionally, the team could finally have field turf as the playing surface. Soldier Field’s grass has been a persistent issue through the years considering the amount of abuse it takes. Besides the Bears, Soldier Field is home to the Chicago Fire of MLS and hosts concerts and other events.
The Chicago Park District has told the team in the past that it would have to foot the bill if it wanted a new surface. A new stadium owned by the franchise also would allow the Bears to maximize their ability to generate revenue as they would be in charge of all aspects of operations, including ticketing, parking, and concessions.
4. Soldier Field has its challenges
Despite its scenic lakefront location, Soldier Field has its flaws. But this is understandable given the venue’s age (opened in 1924). In fact, the Green Bay Packers are the only NFL team that has played in the same stadium (Lambeau Field, opened in 1957) longer than the Bears have been at Soldier Field. Next on the list is the Kansas City Chiefs, who played their first season in Arrowhead Stadium in 1972. More than half of the league’s teams (19) have moved into new stadiums since 2000.
As for Soldier Field, the downtown location is a challenge from a parking standpoint. The stadium shares parking lots/garages with numerous other popular destinations and tourist attractions, including The Field Museum, Alder Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, Grant Park, and Millennium Park. It’s fairly common for other well-attended events to be taking place nearby at the same that Soldier Field is hosting a game.
The lack of available (or affordable) parking around Soldier Field means that fans must find another way to get to the stadium. There are public transportation options, but each has its pros and cons. Only two Chicago Transit Authority buses make stops at Soldier Field, while the closest the trains can get you is within walking distance from Grant Park. The Metra Rail and South Shore Rail Line stop at nearby McCormick Place, but neither offers closer access to the stadium.
Getting around any major metropolitan downtown area is a challenge, so the Bears certainly aren’t unique in this respect. But a move away from the heart of downtown Chicago to Arlington Heights could offer fans more options to get to the Bears’ new stadium.
5. The Bear would be closer to their practice facility
Arlington Heights is only 35 minutes away from Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Illinois. That's much closer than Soldier Field, which is nearly an hour trip in good traffic and oftentimes takes much longer due to congestion and other factors. This would mean a move to Arlington Heights would also potentially be more convenient for the players, coaches, and staff.