Celebrate the Facts!
The foundation of modern American gladiator sports is the National Football League (NFL), creator of a virtual national holiday, Super Bowl Sunday, and provider of content for 16 other weeks. During the morphing and development of the sport, it has embraced industrial beer, solicited women to join the fan base, and found multiple branding revenue streams. The NFL juggernaut has raised the value of the franchises substantially, as they are great investments and glamorous to boot. The Chicago Bears are next up on the auction block, and they will attract a tremendous amount of interest from the American oligarch class.
Sports journalists make a living off magnifying catastrophe, and in this case, the numbers and the media hype, of course, do not match. Overall, the Bears rank 5th in the NFL in regular-season winning percentage, an impressive history, and not out of line with their media market size. However, their playoff record is less impressive at 20th, perhaps adding kindling to media outrage. Regardless, journalists routinely excoriate their franchise ownership, leadership, coaches, and players, so some of that comes with the turf.
Quick financial facts about the Chicago Bears:
The nominal owner of the team is 98-year-old Virginia Halas McCaskey, who is the daughter of Bears founder George Halas. Halas ran the team until his death in 1983 and bequeathed the team to his daughter. The Bears’ eight-person board of directors includes five members of the McCaskey family.
A legal filing provides hints about the legal structure of the Chicago Bears. George Halas, Sr., was the founder of the Chicago Bears and the club's president until his death on October 31, 1983. Halas incorporated the Bears in Illinois in 1922. George Halas, Sr.'s children, George Halas, Jr., and Virginia McCaskey acquired stock in the team through prior gifts and sales. George Halas, Jr., also assisted his father in managing the team until his death on December 16, 1979. At his son's death, George Halas, Sr., was 82 years old and owned a 49.35% interest in the Bears. The estate of George Halas, Jr., owned a 19.68% interest in the Bears. Virginia McCaskey, James E. Finks, Charles A. Brizzolara, Robert and Carol Brizzolara in joint tenancy, and Nancy B. Lorenz owned the remaining outstanding shares.
In 1981, the shareholders ‘merged’ the Bears with a newly formed Delaware-incorporated organization, now known as the Chicago Bears Football Club, Inc., for tax advantages and legal liability reasons.
Virginia McCaskey votes the stock for her 11 children and other relatives, which amounts to an 80-percent ownership share, allowing her to control the team. The team’s board consists of Virginia McCaskey and five of her sons: George, Brian, Edward, Michael, Patrick, and minority owners Pat Ryan and Andrew McKenna.
The Chicago Bears are a cash machine in terms of annual revenue plus the incredible leaps in franchise value. The American lust for gladiator sports drives inflation, and the big money guys understand that owning a franchise is not only fun; it is an excellent investment. At the same time, the McCaskey family holds the keys to the kingdom, and it is possible, maybe even likely, they will hold onto the money machine. Will the heirs succumb to the inevitable quick, big money offers or hold onto the cash machine?
The sale of the Bears has been a hot topic in the press for decades, and the discussion has accelerated as Virginia McCaskey approaches the century mark in age. Sports media has thrown about three possibilities to purchase the team: Pat Ryan, Jeff Bezos, and Neil Bluhm, all rolling in dough and counting among the American oligarch class.
Ryan is the frontrunner as he's already a minority owner and has the right of first refusal to buy any part of the team that the McCaskey's might sell. In addition, Ryan, the founder of AON Corporation, purchased the naming rights to the football field and basketball arena at Northwestern University. Like many of the American super-rich, Ryan is also a big-money contributor to conservative political causes. Ryan obtained his stake in the Bears in 1990 along with Andrew McKenna when the family was struggling with estate tax issues and now holds about a 20% interest. Ryan, however, is 84 years old, leading to speculation about any genuine interest other than self-aggrandizement.
Bluhm, a real estate developer, is a Northwestern University graduate and owner of marquee Chicago properties 900 North Michigan and the Ritz Carlton. Bluhm is a contemporary of Ryan’s at 83 years of age, and similarly, it is difficult to foresee much aggression.
Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has money to burn, as shown by his recent $500 million yacht purchase. The press throws Bezos’ name about in virtually every big money proposition, and there is no credible account of contacts or interest in the Bears. He was interested in buying stock in the Washington Football Team and has the deep pockets required to build a first-class franchise.
One might expect aggressive businesspeople like Ryan and Bluhm would manage for profitability, so under that scenario, the Bears would continue to be a second-tier performing franchise. However, Bezos used unconventional business practices to build Amazon, and his approach might be more aggressive and could result in the Bears becoming a performing organization.
During the Virginia McCaskey reign, the Bears have been known for payroll stinginess, and the results on the field have been indifferent. The small stadium size ensures sellouts, so poor results do not impact the bottom-line profit of the organization. Other revenue streams are likely only marginally affected by sodden results. As a result, there is no financial incentive to spend more money.
One way to increase that revenue is a giant stadium. NFL teams have a well-worn and successful playbook of extorting new stadiums with lucrative skyboxes from municipalities, and the Bears are following the plan. The club has offered to buy Arlington International Racecourse, a failing horse racing facility in an indifferent suburb in far-west Chicago, but with a suitable footprint for a new stadium and plausible transportation access. The first step in the NFL new-stadium playbook is to threaten relocation, in this case to a regional facility, as leverage to get the municipality to pay the cash to build a newer, more extensive facility.
It is unlikely the pugnacious mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, will fall for the gambit, but mayors come and go, and the Chicago Bears, like the sun, the moon, and the stars above, seem to last forever, along with the siren song of the NFL.
The Chicago Bears will likely remain in a transitional state for the foreseeable future, with the predecessor to any real change being Virginia McCaskey’s demise. A tremendous amount of private equity is looking for a home, and an NFL franchise is a premier investment.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.