A Chicago Bears move to Arlington Heights may leave thousands of fans with worthless Soldier Field seat licenses

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When Chicago attorney Jerry Latherow paid $18,000 to buy four permanent seat licenses at Soldier Field last year, the Bears season ticket holder upgraded from a nearby section to get a better view of the scoreboard.

He may soon need a telescope, after the Bears signed a $197.2 million purchase agreement in September for Arlington International Racecourse, presaging the team’s move to a new stadium — 30 miles from his 50-yard-line seats at Soldier Field.

“I understand why the Bears would want to move,” said Latherow, 69. “And I know this will cost me money.”

Latherow is far from alone. The Bears sold 26,000 permanent seat licenses, or PSLs, priced between $765 and $10,000 each, to help fund the 2003 renovation of Soldier Field. While many of those seats have since changed hands, thousands of current PSL owners now face the prospect of their investments expiring worthless if the team packs up for the northwest suburbs.

The Soldier Field seat license terminates at “the end of the final home game of the last season in which the team plays home games in the stadium,” according to the Bears’ PSL agreement.

Permanent seat licenses — the right to buy season tickets indefinitely — have become the norm in the National Football League over the last 25 years, leveraging sizable upfront investments from die-hard fans to build increasingly bigger and more elaborate stadiums. But PSL rights don’t transfer from stadium tostadium and in Chicago, where the Bears have had more than 40 starting quarterbacks since winning the Super Bowl in 1986, permanent may be a relative term.

The $690 million Soldier Field renovation, which critics have likened to a flying saucer crash landing atop the original Colosseum-like stadium, stripped the 1924 building of its national historic landmark designation, but kept the Bears in Chicago — at least until now.

Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a Chicago-based sports consulting firm, said the renovated 61,500-seat Soldier Field — the smallest stadium in the NFL — was “economically obsolete” from the outset.

“It wasn’t a good idea when it was done,” Ganis said. “But it might have been the only idea that could get done.”

Taxpayers covered $432 million of the project, mostly through the city’s hotel tax. A significant portion of the balance was funded by the permanent seat licenses.

Bears spokesman Brandon Faber declined to disclose the amount raised, but said all of the original PSL sales were “used to pay for the Soldier Field renovation.”

In 2007, the team launched a secondary PSL Marketplace, where fans can buy and sell seat licenses online, with the Bears charging a 10% commission on both ends of the transaction. Over the past 12 months, there were 485 seats sold, according to the website, with prices ranging from $63 for a 300-level seat to $52,500 for a 100-level seat behind the Bears bench.

The team declined to disclose how much revenue it has generated from the secondary PSL transactions.

Founded in Decatur, the Bears moved to Chicago in 1921 and played at Wrigley Field for 50 years. In 1971, they shifted to Soldier Field, where the Chicago Park District became their landlord. The Bears pay $6.48 million per year under the current lease, which runs through 2033, but the team can exit early by paying a penalty.

The Bears and Churchill Downs, owners of Arlington International Racecourse, signed the purchase agreement for the 326-acre suburban site, home to the thoroughbred track since 1927. During an earnings call Thursday, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said he expected the sale to close by early 2023.

“We believe that the Chicago Bears will ultimately develop this prime real estate into a world-class stadium and development with numerous amenities for fans and residents to enjoy over the coming decades,” Carstanjen said.

As the appetite for public financing wanes, seat license revenue will be “a vital part” of funding a new Bears stadium, Ganis said.

The expansion Carolina Panthers were the first NFL team to sell PSLs to fund their new stadium, which opened in 1996. Since then, nearly every new NFL stadium has been built — at least partially — on the backs of fans through seat licensing.

Most recently, the Los Angeles Rams moved last year into the $5 billion SoFi Stadium, where fans paid up to $100,000 for a permanent seat license. Ganis said PSLs have raised more than $600 million for the Rams.

There are few precedents on how to treat current PSL holders when building a new stadium, simply because most of the facilities that utilized fan funding are still in the game.

Ganis said the Bears could offer current PSL holders discounts or even just first choice on seats, which would also go a long way to juicing up sales at a new stadium. Anything less could risk alienating core fans and generating bad publicity, something the Bears want to avoid as they undertake a major stadium development, he said.

“PSLs typically run concurrent with the lease on the building, so there wouldn’t be continuing rights,” Ganis said. “But having a right and doing what is right, can sometimes be two different things.”

The Bears said it was premature to discuss what, if anything, they might offer current PSL holders upon moving to a new stadium.

“We literally do not own the land yet,” Faber said. “It’s just way too early to forecast that.”

The Rams may provide a cautionary tale. The team, which moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis for a new domed stadium in 1995, returned to California in 2016 after 21 seasons. A federal class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of thousands of disenfranchised fans who bought PSLs in St. Louis with a 2024 expiration.

In 2018, the Rams agreed to pay $24 million to settle the PSL lawsuit.

While Arlington Heights is a lot closer than California, some Bears PSL holders expect compensation if the team makes the move.

Karen O’Shea, a PSL owner and season ticket holder from Romeoville, said she wants “more than a bobblehead” for years of disappointing returns from her Bears investment.

Pumped up after attending the Bears 2007 Super Bowl appearance — a losing effort versus the Colts during the short-lived Rex Grossman era — O’Shea and her husband paid $18,000 in the Bears secondary PSL market for two seats in Section 330 at the south corner of the end zone.

They have been season ticket holders ever since, paying more than $4,000 annually for tickets and parking to watch mostly mediocre Bears teams over the last 13 seasons. In recent years, they have become fair weather fans, staying home whenever so-called Bears weather is in the air.

“I would love to have a dome or retractable roof because honestly the worst thing is being at a Bears game when it’s raining or snowing,” said O’Shea, 52, who works at an exhibit design company in Warrenville. “I would be more likely to go to a new stadium under a roof in Arlington Heights.”

O’Shea said she would like to see the team offer a discount or first choice on new seats to current PSL holders.

While she sees the $18,000 PSL purchase as a sunk cost, O’Shea would like to recover the 10% commission she paid the Bears through the team’s online marketplace.

“Give me my 10% back toward the purchase of a new seat and I would feel fine with that,” she said. “Because they made a secondary profit, which really is kind of weird, if you think about it.”

Mark Higley, 32, of Wicker Park, whose family bought four PSLs in Section 256 for about $25,000 through the secondary market in 2014, also supports the team’s move to Arlington Heights.

“I’ve kind of shifted,” said Higley, who works for Capstone Logistics in Chicago.

A Glenview native, the recently married Higley said he loves Soldier Field and its downtown location, but plans to move back to the northern suburbs to raise his family, making a potential Bears change of venue to Arlington Heights more convenient for him down the road.

Higley said he “knew the risk” when they bought the PSLs, but he would like the Bears to give current PSL owners first rights to pick seat locations and a discounted rate for the new stadium.

“I’d be a little frustrated that the Bears don’t show their longtime season ticket holders and longtime fan base a little financial help, but at the end of the day, I think we’d still buy in,” Higley said.

Latherow, a Chicago personal injury lawyer who lives in Lincoln Park, spent $20,000 for two PSLs in Section 235 through the Bears PSL marketplace in 2015. He ponied up another $18,000 for four nearby PSLs in March 2020 to get a better view of the scoreboard, an issue Latherow raised in a letter to Bears Chairman George McCaskey that elicited a “nice personal note back.”

The intention was to sell the first two seat licenses on the secondary market — until the Bears announced the Arlington Heights purchase agreement, Latherow said.

“I was going to put the old ones on that marketplace, but there’s no need to now, because nobody’s going to offer anything decent for them,” he said.

Latherow said a Bears move to Arlington Heights makes sense from a business standpoint, but he hopes they offer current season ticket holders “first crack” at the PSLs in the new stadium.

“It’d be surprising if they don’t do something to give the PSL holders now some benefit for their loyalty through the years,” Latherow said. “It’d be nice if there’d be some type of a break on the PSLs but you know, their bottom line is making money with these PSLs — at least pay a part of the cost for the new stadium.”

Allen Sanderson, a sports economist at the University of Chicago, said getting a good financial return on a new football stadium is challenging, because beyond a handful of games, the venue is “closed all the time.”

In the end, staying at Soldier Field may be the Bears’ best option, Sanderson said. For many fans, the decision may be irrelevant.

“Personally, I would rather watch the Bears at home on my TV set than watch it in Soldier Field,” Sanderson said. “If you’re going to the game, you’re really talking about a six- to eight-hour commitment. In your living room or your family room, it’s only a three-hour commitment. And much better weather.”

rchannick@chicagotribune.com



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