SportAmerica at Large

Dave Hannigan: The Chicago Bears are owned by billionaires. They want taxpayers to fund their new stadium

A club that turns an annual profit of around $200m is seeking funds and tax breaks from a cash-strapped city, where two-thirds of children drink contaminated tap water

The principal owner of the Chicago Bears is 101-year-old Virginia Halas McCaskey, revered materfamilias of the NFL.

In 1920, George Halas, her father, paid $100 so the team then known as the Decatur Staleys could join the fledgling league and that investment is now valued somewhere north of $6bn.

Despite her age, Halas McCaskey is still listed as secretary of the club and boasts an estimated personal net worth of $2.3bn. That’s roughly the same amount the Bears are currently asking local taxpayers to contribute towards building a new 77,000-seater domed stadium on the waterfront of Lake Michigan. The sheer gall of it is impressive.

A club that turns an annual profit of around $200m is seeking funds and tax breaks from a cash-strapped city, where two-thirds of children drink contaminated tap water because authorities are struggling to find the money to replace 400,000 lead service pipes.

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While local education officials contend with a looming budget deficit of $391m set to severely impact children and teachers at already under-resourced public schools, the Bears pay defensive end Montez Sweat $24.5m a year and charge an average of $7,000 for a season ticket.

An outfit in rude financial health has reached two Super Bowls in its history yet somehow reckons itself worthy of high-end corporate welfare on this grand scale.

In this the Bears are not alone. The great stadium boondoggle is a long-standing staple of American sporting life that baffles outsiders. For-profit corporations, often the playthings of billionaires, shake down struggling municipalities for huge subsidies to construct new facilities under threat of upping sticks and moving somewhere down the road. Just an accepted part of the game.

Once a team starts fluttering its eyelids at a rival conurbation, authorities must quickly rustle up some combo of cash, land, and tax breaks to make them stay. Or risk being the people in charge the day the big top departed and consigned the city to minor league status. No politician wants that unwelcome legacy, so they all fall for the flim-flam.

These tiresome dramas are playing out all over the country right now. The Oakland A’s baseball team are relocating from California to Nevada because Las Vegas is giving them $380m towards building a new home. Not to mention throwing in a ridiculous guarantee the club can leave the Strip if any tax is ever imposed on it by the city. A nice little arrangement.

New York City FC, part-owned by the New York Yankees and Manchester City (neither short a few bob), claimed to be self-funding a new, soccer-specific stadium in Queens but it turns out the facility will cost the city half a billion in lost property taxes due to a one-sided negotiation with local government. The same local government is presently shutting libraries on Sundays to save money.

Despite playing in one of the most impoverished cities in America, the Buffalo Bills put all other sweetheart deals to shame. Kathy Hochul, Democratic Governor of New York state and a huge fan of the team, approved $600m from the public purse to cover initial construction costs of the Bills’ new stadium. Erie County will stump up another $250m and state and local government will hand over that much again for repairs and capital improvements once it’s up and running.

The Bills are owned by Terry and Kim Pegula, a couple worth nearly $7bn. Much of that fortune made from natural gas and fracking. All they had to do to access such epic funding was cast flirtatious glances at Toronto, the Canadian neighbour desperate to attract an NFL team.

The Bears know this coquettish dance well. For years leading up to unveiling their current plans, they toyed with setting up shop in Arlington Heights, 26 miles north of Soldier Field. Having spent $200m purchasing a racecourse there, that project ran aground due to an argument over taxation with local authorities. The issue seems to be the authorities wanted them to pay some.

No such problems in Chicago where Mayor Brandon Johnson is cheerleading the Bears’ intentions to remake the waterfront, declaring, “this is going to reinvigorate the entire city”. Exactly what every myopic supporter of a new stadium always says even though all empirical evidence is to the contrary.

Economists who might not agree on much else universally acknowledge that underwriting a stadium with taxpayer funds is terrible policy and cite the fact not a single American city has ever recouped its investment in a facility for a sports franchise. Clubs on the make routinely wheel out dreaded consultants promising the initial public outlay will be dwarfed by the revenue generated by the big show. Never works out that way.

Residents of Jackson County, Missouri, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, recently voted overwhelmingly against an increased sales tax to part-fund the Super Bowl champions’ replacing Arrowhead Stadium. They love their team but were wise to the scam.

The denizens of Chicago should know better too. In 2002, the Bears spent $587 million renovating Soldier Field. Nearly $400m of that came from the city issuing municipal bonds. Due to deferred payments and exorbitant interest rates, it remains on the hook for all that money more than two decades later. Yet the natives are now expected to source five times that amount to pay for a new, improved home.

In a more respectable business than the NFL, this might be called a Ponzi scheme. Except most people only fall for that once.