Arlington Park on Mother’s Day. When I think about my late mother, the memories from our annual trips to the racetrack frequently pop in my head.
For a child, few things are better than seeing a horse up close. Watching a group of horses scream by at the finish line with a crowd roaring is as good as it gets. And that’s why I’ve made numerous trips back to Arlington International Racecourse with my own son.
But the slow death of horse racing at Arlington is nearly complete. Churchill Downs Inc., the current owner of the track, announced Tuesday that the venue is going up for sale.
And if Arlington can’t be home to horses, then it should be home to the Chicago Bears.
Having grown up in the city, those are words I never thought I’d write, but times have changed – dramatically. And as the Bears lag behind the rest of the NFL in many areas – the stadium game sure stands out. For a venue so perfectly placed between downtown and Lake Michigan, Soldier Field offers nothing in terms of convenience. It’s hard to access, with limited public transportation options and a less than ideal tailgating experience depending on where you’re lucky enough to park. God bless the fans who huddle together in the dark North Garage with the sweet smell of urine lingering in the cold air.
But as much as the Bears are falling behind in the stadium game, it’s the City of Chicago that is losing the most. As almost every major U.S. city takes turns hosting Super Bowls and Final Fours – including cold weather cities like Minneapolis and New York – Chicago sits on the bench.
Remember how great it was seeing our city featured during the NBA All-Star Game festivities in 2020? Chicago shined, despite less than ideal weather conditions.
Such a (positive) spotlight on Chicago is rare, mainly because stadiums aren’t exactly what we do best. Wrigley Field is iconic, but it took new ownership, the purchasing of neighboring rooftop properties, and the need for fans to wear hardhats to games to get that place fixed up.
Finding a site for what Chicago needs – a legitimate multi-purpose, 80,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof – is not easy. Good luck finding that land in the city. Lincoln Yards could have been a potential option, but it’s already far down a redevelopment path and no longer available. Plus, the traffic would have been a nightmare.
This is where Arlington Park comes in. The racetrack sits on 326 suburban acres with a footprint that already includes space for an enormous stadium, plenty of parking and room for extra retail and entertainment. Oh, and there’s a Metra train stop, which already makes it more accessible than Soldier Field.
By comparison, the enormous Hollywood Park development in Inglewood, Calif. that encompasses Sofi Stadium – which will host Super Bowl LVI next year – sits on 298 acres. When the development is complete, it will be home to the Rams, Chargers, concerts, shopping, dining, nightlife, residences, office space, a hotel, and the NFL Network. And it was all built on the site of the old Hollywood Park – a horse racetrack.
If done properly – and that’s a big if in Chicagoland politics – Arlington Park could house a similar development and give the Bears a state-of-the-art home much closer to their recently renovated Lake Forest practice facility, which is already nicer than Soldier Field.
This isn’t to suggest Arlington Heights is the perfect location. Arlington International Racecourse sits 28 miles from the center of downtown Chicago and it’s a 35-minute drive even without traffic. But it would be far from a unique setup for an NFL stadium. AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. is located 18 miles from Dallas. Hard Rock Stadium is 15 miles from downtown Miami and even farther from Miami Beach, which is the where the bulk of Super Bowl events are held. State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. is 17 miles from downtown Phoenix. MetLife Stadium is technically only eight miles from the heart of New York City, but it’s located in a different state and you have to cross two rivers to get there. And on the more extreme end, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. is 43 miles from San Francisco.
Traditionalists might say the Bears belong in Chicago. Never mind that a majority of fans live outside the city. Bears ownership might stress the importance of “Bear weather,” which is easy to do when you watch games from a suite or press box.
Guess what? Sitting in the cold is not fun. And in 10 years of covering the Bears, I can think of exactly one game in which “Bear weather” actually helped the Bears win a game – 2018 against the Rams. I don’t need to remind you what happened in the one playoff game they hosted in that time.
Refusing to let go of old school thinking is what leads to building a smaller stadium inside historical columns and calling it a “renovation.”
But speaking of history, there’s been flirtation between the Bears and Arlington Park before. A Chicago Tribune story from 1987 reads: “Bears President Michael McCaskey earlier this year approached Richard Duchossois, owner of Arlington Park, about the possibility of including a stadium as part of Duchossois` efforts to redevelop the track.” According to the report, those plans included both “a new racetrack and a 75,000-seat football stadium.”
But that same story also references an issue the Bears still have today: a Soldier Field lease. In 1987, their lease ran through 1999. The current lease reportedly runs through 2033. Still, that’s something that could be navigated, especially if the City of Chicago buys into the benefits of being able to host Super Bowls, Final Fours and other events. While the games might be played in Arlington Heights, Chicago would still get a lot of the tourism and spotlight. When George Halas threatened to move the team out of Chicago in the 1970s, there was very little reason for the city to be happy about it. But today, the benefits of being able to host global sporting events in the greater Chicagoland area might outweigh whatever revenue the city receives by hosting 10 Bears home games a year.
The lease issue is pennies compared to the much larger problem: Who pays for it? While the Hollywood Park comparison carries some weight in vision, the costs do not. Sofi Stadium was privately funded and the final bill to Rams owner Stan Kroenke was over $5 billion, according to the Los Angeles Times. The McCaskey Family won’t be spending $5 billion on a new stadium, nor should they.
The Vikings were able to build U.S. Bank Stadium for $1.1 billion and it is immaculate. The costs were split by the Vikings, the City of Minneapolis and the State of Minnesota after years of political negotiation.
Coming up with a creative way to pay for a major stadium development in the Chicagoland area seems nearly impossible, but if there is a solution in the suburbs, it’s hard to imagine a better option than the 326 acres that already house a sporting venue. And don't underestimate the NFL's role in this. The league loves new stadiums and isn't afraid to get involved. Plus, it's possible that gambling revenue and the prospect of an included casino/sportsbook could help pay the bill.
Of course, my personal preference would be for Arlington Park to remain the same – a place where I can give my son the same memories I was gifted on so many Mother’s Days growing up.
But if it must change – and it sure seems like the horse racing days are nearing an end – then Arlington Park is the best possible site for the long overdue stadium Chicago deserves.