The history of sports subsidies in Illinois

Scott Reeder
Posted 10/5/21

Rich people own professional sports teams and for some reason politicians just can’t resist shoveling cash their way.

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The history of sports subsidies in Illinois


Rich people own professional sports teams and for some reason politicians just can’t resist shoveling cash their way. 

My first exposure to this concept came on June 30, 1988, a few minutes before midnight. I was following Gov. James R. Thompson at a dead run, charging from the Senate chambers to the House in the Illinois Capitol.

Thompson was literally racing against the clock to pass a $120 million subsidy for the White Sox, who were threatening to move to Florida. The measure needed to pass before midnight, when the legislative session would go into overtime and a supermajority would be needed to pass legislation.

I was just a journalism intern watching grownups do stupid things with other people’s money. What I didn’t realize back then was that I was witnessing the dawn of a new age where taxpayers would fund ever bigger stadiums and ballparks for professional teams.

I was thinking about that trip through the Statehouse corridors recently when I read that the Chicago Bears bought land 30 miles northwest of Chicago’s Soldier Field, the city-owned stadium where they have played since 1971. 

It has been about two decades since the Bears last demanded and received renovations to Chicago’s lakefront stadium. In 2000, Mayor Richard M. Daley agreed to spend about $660 million installing a modern stadium inside historic Soldier Field.

So, what could this move mean? Well, taxpayers, hang on to your pocketbooks. Don’t be surprised if the Bears come hat in hand wanting money from the state or municipalities to fund their endeavor.

“What we are seeing here is classic subsidy-seeking behavior,” said Robert Baade, an economics professor at Lake Forest College. “The owners of the Bears are going to threaten to leave Chicago unless the city builds them a new stadium or assists them in some way.”

Baade, who has written extensively about subsidies for professional teams, doesn’t claim any insider knowledge of what the Bears management is thinking. He bases his perspective on what he has seen play out in cities across the country.  

“A modern stadium costs about $1.5 billion and they want someone to pay for it. I don’t see the Bears putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage by paying for it themselves. So, they are going to seek taxpayer support.” 

Michael Farren, an economics research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said the cities and states that subsidize stadium projects never see enough new economic activity to justify their investment.

So why do politicians keep doing this? 

Well. it gives them bragging rights that they “saved” a local sports team. They believe pandering to sports fans gives them votes. And if they can’t show how the dollars add up, they can point to such intangibles as “civic pride.”

Besides that, most politicians are cowards who fear an opponent will blame them for “losing” the beloved hometown team. 

When the White Sox subsidy vote was brought before the House, a majority of lawmakers voted against the proposal. But instead of counting the votes, the presiding officer — a top lieutenant of then-House Speaker Michael Madigan — left the roll call open as Thompson walked to the desks of each lawmaker voting “no” and persuaded them one by one to change their votes.

The last lawmaker necessary to make a majority switched his vote when the hands on the main clock in the House Chamber were a few minutes past midnight, but the presiding officer, Majority Leader Jim McPike, said it was a few minutes before midnight on his watch and declared the bill passed.

A disgraceful bill passed in a shameful manner? It’s the Illinois way.

Madigan, Thompson and their fellow pols claimed to have kept the Sox in Illinois. But don’t be fooled, that was us, one tax dollar at a time.

Scott Reeder, a veteran journalist in the Springfield area, can be reached at: