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Rahm Emanuel, calling himself a 'competitive punk', talks Chicago sports — including those Cubs-Rosemont rumors in 2013 and his feud with Rocky Wirtz

David Haugh
Chicago Tribune

Satisfied after reflecting on Chicago’s sports-related issues he could control as mayor, Rahm Emanuel wondered aloud about the ones he couldn’t.

“Tell me this because I don’t understand,’’ Emanuel leaned forward in his chair to ask Friday at the end of a 30-minute interview on his last weekday in office. “Why can’t the Cubs get the bullpen right? I don’t know how you drop two games to Cincinnati.”

Rahm from Ravenswood then sounded like so many sports-radio callers bemoaning how former Bears kicker Cody Parkey’s double doink in the NFC playoff game at Soldier Field “cost a shot at the Super Bowl.’’ Emanuel quickly changed the subject to praise Bears coach Matt Nagy’s ingenuity and general manager Ryan Pace’s aggressiveness in trading for pass rusher Khalil Mack.

“Ryan could’ve (messed) it up,’’ Emanuel said. “He didn’t look the other way. He deserves credit.’’

How much credit or blame Emanuel deserves for running Chicago the last eight years is best left for political pundits. The outgoing mayor opened his door for a postgame analysis, if you will, solely to discuss how sports so often intersected with the job of leading one of America’s greatest sports cities.

Several times you have stated how proud you are to have finished two terms without devoting any public money to private sports stadiums. Why does that matter so much to you?

One, I may be more of a free marketer than the owners themselves. I felt like sending them Adam Smith’s book, “Wealth of Nations.” I don’t think it’s a good investment and I don’t think taxpayers should be subsidizing privately owned, privately managed, privately gained sports teams. We do it by being good fans. There has been plenty of academic research on it. My job was to represent A) the taxpayers and B) the city. And I’m not going to take the taxpayer money as dumb money. The taxpayers aren’t there for a season. Their money is going to be there for a long time.

Were the Cubs ever close to going to Rosemont as speculated back in 2013?

No. That was all poker. And, the last time I checked, the valuation of the team has done pretty well. Now more jobs are created, there has been economic development and I welcomed and promoted that.

Was there compromise on both sides?

There were things we did, yeah, like with the new scoreboard, to monetize. I’ve got no problem. The plaza, the hotel, night games … no problem. But I’m not going to write you a check to do that. The truth is they’ve been able to prosper, the city’s been able to gain and the taxpayers didn’t underwrite it.

How was Wintrust Arena different regarding public funds?

(Emanuel originally earmarked $55 million in city Tax Increment Financing for the project but maintains the arena was financed through $82.5 million levied by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and $82.5 million from DePaul University.)

In the arena and McCormick Place, DePaul wrote us a check and the visuals to McCormick created a campus, new hotels, 1,500 jobs and more. Big difference.

Why did a feud escalate between you and Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz?

I don’t know. It went off the rails. I think the real final straw, so to say, was (the 2018 budget) when the city amusement tax for sporting events moved up to 9 percent. For entertainment it was 5. At those venues of United Center, Wrigley Field and Soldier Field, I went to the sporting number, from 5 to 9 percent, and I eliminated all amusement taxes for any venue that was 1,500 and less. Rocky joked that, “Now, I know what it’s like to get checked into the boards.’’ But it was comity — c-o-m-i-t-y. You know, Chicago used to give companies tax breaks for the skyboxes and I eliminated that to save $4 million. I didn’t think we should be underwriting corporations for entertaining clients. All this was consistent with my philosophy. Then, Rocky supported (2019 mayoral candidate) Paul Vallas and wrote a memo I shouldn’t be attacking (President Donald) Trump, and I’m not going to take political advice from him.

Do you have a relationship with Rocky now?

No. I mean, I’ll see him at hockey games and he’s nice to me. But I don’t think I’ll be going to those any time soon.

Why is it important to bring the Fire back to Chicago?

(Emanuel wouldn’t confirm an agreement has been officially reached for the Fire to play their games again at Soldier Field. But an administrative source involved with negotiations expected an announcement this month confirming the Fire’s move from Bridgeview, held up last week by an insurance issue.)

You’re a Chicago team that should be playing in Chicago and you should have a fan base that reflects the team. Look at cities half our size supporting pro soccer. The Fire know it’s in their self-interest to get here. Look at Atlanta (the United averaged 53,002 fans per game last year). We can do that. Give me a break. Look at the demographics of our population, not even close. This will be great for the city sports-wise and culturally.

What did you learn about the role of sports in Chicago during your tenure?

You know how people say politics are like sports in Chicago? Well, I’d like to have an offseason too. I don’t. I need their same trainers too. … But, seriously, when the Blackhawks won (in 2013 and 2015), when the Cubs won in 2016 and even some White Sox fans were rooting for them, and certainly seeing the way we embraced the Jackie Robinson Little League team (in 2014), I saw how sports can pull a city together in a way and transcend politics. That’s powerful.

How has Chicago Public Schools done in terms of providing ample athletic opportunities for kids who need sports as an escape from the violence of their neighborhoods and community?

Academically, we do that too with chess clubs and things like After School Matters, but in terms of sports, I believe we do because of coaches who are more than coaches. Look at Phillips Academy — the year they became the first CPS team to win state in football (in 2015) they had four homeless kids. At Solorio Academy, (which won the IHSA Class 2A boys soccer title in 2017), I think about 30 percent of those kids were Dreamers. Those are families, not just teams. Coaches are mentors, parents, aunts, uncles. Kids need the investment in athletics, academics and arts. They need the support, the outlet and the discovery and the city needs to continue to support that. And I need to say our pro teams don’t just do checkbook charity. They put in serious time and effort to benefit kids.

Iowa became the 11th state to legalize sports gambling last week. Illinois is counting on legalization for Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s first budget. What is your stance on legalizing sports gambling?

I have tough emotional pulls on that. I don’t see the corrosive social downside on sports gambling that I do on casinos. I don’t know a lot of people spending their Social Security checks on sports gaming the way I do in casinos. But I probably should shut my mouth because I don’t know enough about it yet.

But you do have thoughts on reforming big-time college sports?

Yes. I don’t say I have this right yet, but it’s something I’ve thought about: The NCAA should change so players can do something in their name philanthropically to remind them how fortunate they are and how their skill contributed to the community that supported them. Give money to something not necessarily for their personal wealth but their community. To me, that would be a win-win. Wherever you came from, these companies would give something to the community you came from to help other kids, a “Zion Williamson Basketball League.” So, it’s not personal wealth necessarily, but they’d get a reminder that they came from a community that supported them and this was their way of giving back to that community.

Besides our own sports teams, Chicago became a bigger player at the league level during your tenure. For a guy not known for his sports fandom, you involved the city in a lot of major sports events. Why?

(Under Emanuel, Chicago played host to the NFL draft twice, the NHL draft, the NBA draft lottery, the Laver Cup, the MLS All-Star Game and struck a deal to stage NBA All-Star weekend next February.)

I didn’t walk in and say, “What am I going to do about sports?’’ But, being the competitive punk that I am, I started realizing things like the NFL draft were appealing if other cities were involved. I said, “OK, I can’t have the Super Bowl because the stadium is too small, fine.” So, I started pushing (NFL Commissioner) Roger (Goodell).

Did you call yourself a “competitive punk”?

I am a middle child.

And Goodell was receptive?

(Grinning.) So, Roger was flying here to go to a game, and it was at the height of a controversy. He was unpopular everywhere he went. I called him while he was on the private plane landing at Midway and I said, “I’ll meet you there and drive in with you so you can make the game on time. I’ll walk in the stadium with you, drive you around in my car with me, whatever. I want everything to go right because I want the draft back here.” He told me if I was willing to stand with him through that (mess) and prove everything I said I’d do, we can have the draft. (Bears board member) Andy McKenna called me the next day and said that was the best (darn) call you’ve ever made.

Did getting the NBA draft lottery involve similar persuasion with Commissioner Adam Silver?

I told Adam. I’m a better brother than Ari (Emanuel, co-CEO of the William Morris Endeavor talent agency) so give me something, OK? We got the draft and All-Star Game. And I’ve got to be honest. I didn’t always know all this stuff about sports, but I realized the value of sporting events like this, what they did for tourism, the feeling in the city and to bring national and international recognition. My only regret was not getting a Final Four because I go every year with my daughter. And I got the Big Ten basketball tournament back here. I love that. The Big Ten is big for this city.

So you’re saying you have interest in becoming the next Big Ten commissioner?

(Laughing) No, no, no. I’m saying if you’re going to list things I helped bring here, make sure that’s on it. Get it right.

David Haugh is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the “Mully and Haugh Show” weekdays from 5-9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.

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