When They Line Up for Stadium Deals, Cities Get Sacked

Like many sports franchises whose owners want to augment their already immense riches, the Chicago Bears are pondering a relocation. After a full century of playing in the city, the Monsters of the Midway could move to suburban Arlington Heights — unless, of course, Chicago wants to make it worth their while to stay.

Season ticket holder Lori Lightfoot, whose day job is mayor, concedes that Soldier Field has deficiencies when it comes to the “fan experience” and to “revenue-generating opportunities.” While insisting any changes would have to be “fiscally prudent,” she sounds as though she’s willing to meet the Bears halfway. But she ought to flee as if Khalil Mack were chasing her.

Cities that bargain with team owners rarely profit from the experience. That’s because the owners have all the negotiating advantages. Owning a business that enjoys a monopoly in their region, they can choose from an abundance of cities and towns that would love to have them. And they know the fans and TV revenues will keep coming regardless.

The Dallas Cowboys vacated Dallas 50 years ago. The New York Jets and Giants don’t even play in the state of New York. The San Francisco 49ers host games in Santa Clara, 40 miles south of the city. The Atlanta Braves started in Boston, migrated to Milwaukee, moved to Atlanta and now reside in Cumberland.

Chicagoans should know better than to get pulled into this rigged contest. Less than 20 years ago, the city committed $432 million in public funds to renovate Soldier Field, for fear of losing the Bears, and taxpayers are still shouldering the burden. Now they may get to pay again for something they already bought.

The mayor and her constituents would be better off if she gave the Bears a ticker-tape parade on their way out of town. New and refurbished sports arenas are billed as bringing alluring economic benefits to the surrounding area as well as the entire host city. But they rarely if ever live up to the hype.

In a survey for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, economist Dennis Coates of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County found that the economic effects of stadium development tend to be small and negative. “Sports-led development is unlikely to succeed in making a community richer,” he concluded.

Chicago is a good example. In the years after the Soldier Field renovation, the city lost population. Lightfoot unwittingly undermined the case for helping the Bears when she complained that fans lack options in the surrounding area.

“If you want to enjoy a nice meal or convene in another place,” she said, “you’ve got to go outside of the stadium footprint.” If the last deal didn’t generate that sort of development, why would the next one?

She wants to make the stadium a “year-round destination,” which is a vain hope for an outdoor venue in a frigid climate. The problem with an NFL arena is that the resident team plays 10 or so home games each year, leaving 355 days when it’s unused or consigned to events that are generally far less lucrative.

Soldier Field is also home to the Chicago Fire soccer club, which uses it only slightly more often than the Bears and typically fills less than 10,000 of the 61,500 seats. “A football facility is such an economic loser that no team wants to own its own,” University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson told me.

Chicago is one of many cities that have been fleeced by ruthless tycoons. Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas was built with $750 million in public money, the price for getting the Raiders to abandon Oakland. The inhabitants of Arlington paid for a new stadium for the Texas Rangers in 1994 — and already, they’re paying for another new one.

The city of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota had to contribute nearly $500 million to the Viking’s home, U.S. Bank Stadium. For LoanDepot Park in Miami, where the Marlins play, local taxpayers will have to come up with $2 billion before they are done.

All these arrangements turn out to be excellent policies — if your goal is to enrich a handful of wealthy team owners. The Bears have been a model of mediocrity on the field for a long time. But this is one game they know how to play.

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Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.