Even though the Bears aren't raising ticket prices for the 2009 season, it doesn't mean they will be cash-strapped in pursuing free agents when the market opens Feb. 27.
For openers, NFL teams get more than 50 percent of their operating revenue from TV money, and all of those contracts have many years remaining with many billions of dollars to be paid. Second, Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips says the team will conduct business as usual this offseason, when it expects to spend close to all of the money allowed this year under the salary cap, which should be $123 million.
"Looking at our own situation, the money we spend on players will be the same," Phillips said. "We spend somewhere near the cap limit, and we will continue to do that regardless of the ticket prices."
The Bears are not alone in their largesse, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell predicted during Super Bowl week that three-quarters of the league's 32 teams will maintain 2008 levels for ticket prices. The Bears' Phillips said the idea for a rare price freeze – the first for the Bears since 2001 – was not the league's idea, but rather an acknowledgment by individual teams that times are tough everywhere.
"To my knowledge, there has been no suggestion from the league," Phillips said. "I just think a lot of clubs looked at it as we did. With the present state of the economy, I think it made more clubs take a look and say, 'Maybe this is more of a problem than we anticipated, and maybe this is something we should do.'
"I hope our fans appreciate it. We always put customer service at a premium and look at ways to make fans feel appreciated as much as we can. If that results from this, that's great. If they're more appreciative, I'm all for anything that makes that happen."
Non-club ticket prices will continue to be priced from $68 to $108 at Soldier Field. Those seats account for approximately 86 percent of capacity. Club seats will remain in the $245-$350 range.
Based on a relatively sluggish free-agent market in baseball – and it's difficult to categorize a market as sluggish when Manny Ramirez thumbs his nose at a one-year, $25 million contract – the Bears and every other NFL team may get more bang for their buck in free agency this year. That doesn't mean the Bears will be making a big splash in the free-agency pool – they usually don't – but they could address a couple smaller needs rather than making one blockbuster deal.
"Typically, our history has been that we look to add quality players at a good value," Phillips said. "If baseball is any barometer, maybe some of the premier players won't be getting quite as much money as they might have gotten in the past. I think more teams might be a little more prudent and take their time before deciding to put out some of the larger contracts we've seen in recent years, given what's happened in baseball and with the state of the economy."
While holding the line on ticket prices may buy the Bears some goodwill with their fans, Phillips knows it won't make them any less impatient with Lovie Smith's team that has compiled a 16-16 record since it appeared in Super Bowl XLI.
Smith has missed the playoffs twice since Super Bowl XLI. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
AROUND THE NFC NORTH
Daunte Culpepper ($2.5 million) and Jon Kitna ($500,000) have upcoming roster bonuses. Dan Orlovsky is set to become an unrestricted free agent Feb. 27. Drew Stanton and Drew Henson, both inexperienced projects, are under contract. The Lions have the No. 1 pick in the draft.
The Lions will try to sign kicker Jason Hanson to a long-term contract, but if they can't by the Feb. 19 deadline, they will designate him their franchise player, Mayhew said.
Whether Thompson breaks from his track record of being a frugal spender when it comes to available players from other teams remains to be seen. The team's radical switch in defensive philosophy from a 4-3 base scheme to a 3-4 should convince Thompson to try to woo a big-name free agent – Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers and the Baltimore Ravens' duo of defensive end Terrell Suggs and linebacker Bart Scott are intriguing.
Further fueling the opportunity to go outside the box is the Packers won't have to spend much to retain a slim list of their own free agents. Right tackle Mark Tauscher is the most prominent free agent-to-be, but he suffered a serious knee injury late last season and will be sidelined until at least training camp, thus making him unattractive on the open market.
The quarterback position is another area of focus. Tarvaris Jackson has yet to prove he's worthy of being a starter in the NFL and the Vikings could look elsewhere for help. Among the team's potential targets is the Patriots' Matt Cassel.
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