How Bears' purchase of Arlington Park happened, and what might happen next

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The idea of the Chicago Bears making a home at Arlington Park first was floated by “Papa Bear” George Halas himself more than four decades ago.

But while that and other talk of a suburban venue for the NFL franchise ultimately proved to be little more than a bargaining chip in the team's recurring negotiations with Chicago over Soldier Field, the Bears' pending purchase of racetrack and its 326 acres makes a move to the Northwest suburbs feel more real than ever before.

Here's a look at how we got to this point, and what might happen next.

• Nov. 1, 2018 — Arlington Park owner Churchill Downs Inc. announces its purchase of a majority stake of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. Seen at the time as Churchill expanding its gambling interests in the Midwest, the move would set in motion the diminution of horse racing at Arlington.

• Aug. 28, 2019 — In a shocking move, Churchill Downs announces it will not seek a state license for slots and other casino games at Arlington Park. The move came after Churchill and Richard L. Duchossois had spent decades lobbying state lawmakers for a casino license, saying the added revenue was needed to prop up the struggling horse racing industry. The decision is seen by many as fallout from Churchill's purchase of Rivers Casino and it not wanting competing casino operations about 10 miles apart.

• July 30, 2020 — A week after live racing returned to Arlington amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Churchill CEO Bill Carstanjen tells investors during a quarterly earnings call that Arlington Park's days are numbered. “The long-term solution is not Arlington Park. That land will have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point,” he said.

• Feb. 23. 2021 — Churchill Downs announces it will sell Arlington Park and the property around it as a redevelopment opportunity. “We expect to see robust interest in the site and look forward to working with potential buyers, in collaboration with the village of Arlington Heights, to transition this storied location to its next phase,” Carstanjen says.

• June 15, 2021 — Churchill Downs' deadline for bids on Arlington Park passes.

• June 17, 2021 — The Chicago Bears confirm they are among the bidders for Arlington Park. “It's our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we're doing what's best for our organization and its future,” team President Ted Phillips said at the time. “If selected, this step allows us to further evaluate the property and its potential.”

• June 22, 2021 — The Bears announce a new, multiyear sponsorship deal with Rivers Casino. The deal includes in-stadium signage for the BetRivers sports betting app and Rivers Casino, as well as digital, social media and print ads. Betting app users also get promotions for Bears prizes and experiences. Though not directly related to Arlington Park, the deal showed the Bears and Churchill were willing to do business together.

• Sept. 29, 2021 — After the news leaked late the night before, the Bears and Churchill Downs formally announce they've reached a $197.2 million agreement for the sale of Arlington Park. Both sides caution that it's not quite a done deal, and closing may not happen until 2023, but the announcement is met mostly with excitement in the Northwest suburbs and among Bears fans.

• Late 2021, 2022 — With the sale's closing contingent upon various approvals of a stadium plan and other redevelopment of the site — and the Bears possible request for some public funding — expect the team to move relatively quickly in bringing their proposals before Arlington Heights' officials.

• 2022 or 2023 — If all goes smoothly with the village, closing of the sale is expected sometime in 2022 or 2023.

• 2026 — The Bears' lease on Soldier Field runs through 2033, but several reports have indicated the team can buy out the final seven years for $84 million. While that's not chump change, it may be a price the team is happy to pay for the opportunity to build its own multibillion dollar facility.

• 2027 — Kickoff in Arlington Heights. Should construction of a new gridiron follow a similar path as that of the massive, $5 billion SoFi Stadium development in Inglewood, California, a new Bears home should be ready for the 2027 NFL season. Whether the quality of the team matches its new digs is TBD.

Bill Carstanjen,CEO, Churchill Downs Inc.
Chicago Bears president Ted Phillips, left, and chairman George McCaskey smile as they watch team practice during the 2012 preseason training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais. Associated Press File Photo, 2012
Chicago Bears CEO Ted Phillips listens as Matt Nagy talks about becoming the newest Chicago Bears head coach in January 2018 at Halas Hall in Lake Forest. Nagy is the 16th head coach in Bears history. Daily Herald File Photo, 2018
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