Melissa Harris and Jared S. Hopkins, Chicago Tribune reporters
July 28, 2013
Bears Chairman George McCaskey is adamant his family has no intention of ever stepping away from the franchise founded in 1920. But keeping control could be tricky.
George's mother, Virginia Halas McCaskey, 90, has controlled the team since 1983, when her father, George "Papa Bear" Halas Sr., died. She votes not only her own stock in the team but also that of her relatives' — totaling 80 percent.
When Virginia McCaskey dies, if her stake in the team gets sliced evenly among her 11 children, the math suggests the franchise would fall short of the NFL's minimum ownership requirements. Each of her children would have a 6.6 percent stake in the team, while the NFL requires lead owners to control at least 10 percent of a team's stock and their relatives to control an additional 20 percent.
The McCaskeys have several ways to fall into compliance, including selling shares among each other or receiving an exemption from the NFL. George McCaskey, the team's chairman since 2011, told the Tribune that the team has a plan to ensure the family's control continues after her death but declined to elaborate, calling the specifics "a private family matter."
"Our goal is to keep the Bears until the second coming," said George McCaskey, one of Virginia's sons, in June. "I can't say that we're never going to sell the Bears, but I can tell you with conviction that we have no intention of selling."
Still, there's a prominent businessman, Pat Ryan Sr., who owns a healthy portion of the team. He not only has the means to buy more but also may become the largest single shareholder after Virginia McCaskey passes.
Ryan, 76, the former chairman of Aon Corp., bought nearly 20 percent of the franchise with friend Andrew McKenna Sr., 82, for $17 million in 1990. Ryan holds most of those shares. He's a sports enthusiast and longtime philanthropist: several athletic facilities at Northwestern bear his name, and he led the city's unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Beyond that, the McCaskey family's control is difficult to maintain as ownership stakes splinter among a growing number of heirs. And with NFL franchises now fetching more than $1 billion, amassing large stakes by buying out relatives is incredibly expensive. The Bears are worth $1.2 billion, according to Forbes.
Multiple NFL owners have struggled with such problems, and in 2009 the league cut the 20 percent ownership standard in half for existing owners. The change came as the Rooney Family, which own the Steelers, transitioned from Art Rooney Sr. to his five sons, who were left with equal stakes of less than 20 percent.
"The difficulty, and you see this in all family businesses but especially in sports teams, is that as a family business goes farther down in generations, it's more and more difficult to keep it in the family, and that is our goal," George McCaskey said. "So we're trying to address the challenges common to many family businesses."
The Bears are a private company, and the McCaskeys rarely reveal much about ownership stakes. But the family was unable to keep details of its holdings private during a series of court battles largely over the estate of Virginia's brother, George S. "Mugs" Halas Jr., which began with his death in 1979 and continued until the mid-90s.
"It wasn't pleasant," said Chicago Sting founder Lee Stern, a friend of George Halas Sr. and minority owner in the White Sox.
Court records showed a complex ownership structure designed by George Halas Sr. so the team would remain in the family and limit its taxes. Virginia McCaskey owned 30 percent through her own stake and holding companies; her children each owned 3.8 percent; and Stephen and Christine Halas, the two children of "Mugs" Halas, each owned 3.8 percent.
The remaining nearly 20 percent belonged to McKenna and Ryan.
George McCaskey declined to discuss ownership stakes — what they were in the past and how they may have changed. "If you want to go with what's already been reported, that's fine with us," he said. When "Mugs" Halas died, his children weren't old enough to entirely control their inheritance — and the executor of Mugs' will negotiated a sale of their Bears stake to Judd Malkin and Neil Bluhm, prominent real estate tycoons and investors in the Bulls.
But Ed McCaskey exercised the family's right of first refusal on sales of minority stock and matched the $17 million offer. That set the McCaskeys back financially and, as a result, they sold to Ryan and McKenna. McKenna, the chairman of McDonald's Corp., was already on the Bears board, having joined about six years earlier. Both men declined comment.
George McCaskey, who lives in rural DeKalb County, said that his family is not independently wealthy. Its net worth and identity are entwined with a team his grandfather took control over from his employer, Augustus Staley of A.E. Staley & Co. The team was the Staley Starchmakers before Halas renamed them the Bears in 1922. Halas, known as "Mr. Everything," played for a decade, coached for more than three decades and shaped the game.
The Bears' board consists of Virginia; five of her sons: George, Brian (senior director of business development), Edward, Michael and Patrick (senior director of special projects); Ryan; McKenna; and Bears CEO Ted Phillips. Another son, Rich McCaskey, works in administration. Only George agreed to a formal interview.
"It's amazed me it's lasted this long," said Bernard Rinella, an attorney who represented Mugs' ex-wife, of current ownership. "What amazes me is these McCaskeys are still getting along."
Virginia McCaskey, who once called football a man's world, always has stayed away from day-to-day operations. But over the years, the shy, stoic "First Lady of the NFL," who lives in Des Plaines, has served as what George calls "the glue" of her family.
And to her, there is no question about the future of the Bears.
"I think it's obvious," she told the Tribune recently. "We're going to keep the team in the family."
Tribune reporter Becky Yerak contributed.
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