Share this article

print logo

What's the Bills' game plan?; Significant outlay of public dollars will be needed for upgrades to nearly 40-year-old stadium

The Buffalo Bills are proposing a renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium rather than a more extensive "gutting of the building."

It's expected the cost of the stadium renovation the Bills want will be a little bit more than $200 million, according to a source familiar with the Bills' stadium study. That is a similar sum to the total amount taxpayers put up the last time the lease was negotiated.

"If you walked into this building in 1973 as a general fan, it's not a heckuva lot different," Bills Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon said. "By NFL standards, our building is old. It needs to be updated. It needs to be refreshed."

Brandon would not disclose the projected cost of the renovation but said talk of a $100 million price tag is way too low.

"The number $100 million has surfaced somehow," Brandon told The Buffalo News. "That was an uninformed, uneducated figure. That number did not come from us. This will be well north of that."

The Bills hired Populous, an architectural firm based in Kansas City, Mo., to study the Orchard Park stadium ahead of negotiations to renew a lease agreement for the county-owned stadium that expires July 2013.

Formal discussions with Erie County officials already have begun.

"The Populous study is very, very close to its completion," Brandon said. "We're fine-tuning a few things, but we're there."

The Bills haven't yet delivered the full study to Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and his staff.

"[But] they've had a significant peek under the hood," Brandon said.

Poloncarz, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the county's ongoing discussions with the Bills.

What the Bills propose at the negotiating table will likely come with a significant request for public dollars.

The last deal reached between the Bills and Erie County, a 15-year lease, called for a $63 million state-funded renovation and annual upgrades paid for by the county that have totaled $38.3 million.

The total cost of that deal to the public was $212 million, according to a Buffalo News calculation based on information provided by the state and the county. That includes construction costs, game day expenses, stadium maintenance, rent payments picked up by the state and annual payments to the Bills.

Brandon said the Bills and Populous did a thorough investigation of three stadium options: building a new stadium, "retrofitting" the current stadium and renovating it.

They've since zeroed in on a renovation that would include key elements of what the Bills think is needed: structural improvements to keep the facility viable, infrastructure improvements to bring the stadium up to modern technology needs, and a total renovation of the exterior gates and paths around the stadium.

>Landscape has shifted

That would mean moving the stadium gates much farther out, making it easier to get in and out of the stadium and creating communal areas for fans to gather around the stadium, which would include better access to concessions and restrooms.

"This renovation would be the first true renovation that would be really geared toward the entire fan base," Brandon said. "When you think about the last time, it was suites and club seats. It was keeping up with today's NFL in terms of revenue."

Brandon said the average NFL stadium is 1.6 million square feet. Ralph Wilson Stadium is 900,000 square feet.

The Bills are making the case for a stadium renovation amid an NFL landscape that has changed dramatically since the team last struck a deal. Sixteen new stadiums have been built. Four others have undergone major construction.

Stadium technology has "taken many leaps" since the last major renovation at Ralph Wilson Stadium, with teams seeking more revenue-producing amenities and upgrades to everything from video boards to concession stands, said Marc Ganis, a stadium consultant and president of Sports Corp. Ltd.

"The only thing that hasn't changed very much is the geometry, where the best seating is and that kind of thing," Ganis said.

The Populous study weighed the cost of constructing a new stadium for the Bills.

"When we looked at the new stadium, we rejected the concept for several reasons," Brandon said. "New stadiums cost anywhere from $800 million and north. What's usually involved is substantial public and fan participations, such as PSLs."

Personal seat licenses are used in many new NFL stadiums. They require the purchase of a license, usually for thousands of dollars, for the right to purchase a season ticket.

"You'd have to look at new revenue sources, new dedicated taxes to service bonds, etc.," Brandon said. "We think when you look at the location of our stadium and the culture of our fan base that it would not be in the best interests of the community."

The price tag of rebuilding stadiums has also escalated since Ralph Wilson Stadium saw its last major renovation.

In Kansas City, where the Chiefs play at Arrowhead Stadium, nearly $400 million was spent to completely retrofit nearly everything but the stadium bowl.

About $295 million went into constructing an indoor atrium, adding extra seats and updating private boxes at the Packers' Lambeau Field.

At Ralph Wilson Stadium, Brandon said, a retrofit would give the stadium much wider concourses. But the way the facility is constructed, the cost would be great to knock all the walls out.

"In the retrofit, you're looking at $450 million to $500 million," Brandon said. "You're looking at huge public funds and bonds. Then you're looking again at PSLs and much higher ticket prices. We don't believe there's sufficient public support or sufficient fan interest in making that kind of investment."

>How to pay?

How the Bills would propose to pay for a renovation to the stadium is still unclear.

"Unfortunately, there is an inverse relationship between the size of the home market and the public split of sports venue costs," said John Vrooman, a sports economist at Vanderbilt University. "But the Bills still have to pony up their fair share."

Smaller markets, Vrooman said, often pick up a greater share of the cost because the market can't "generate the cash flow necessary for private funding."

Despite that, he said, even teams in smaller markets have paid for a larger portion of construction costs in recent years compared with deals put together in the mid-1990s amidst an expansion of the league that saw teams move from city to city.

In Kansas City, for example, the Chiefs paid $125 million toward the stadium retrofit completed in 2010.

The creation of an NFL loan program that uses shared revenue to finance a portion of construction projects has also helped ease demands at the negotiating table throughout the league, Vrooman said.

Erie County officials, who have brought on the law firm Nixon Peabody to help negotiate with the Bills, have not discussed the negotiations publicly, but have said they are studying leases in other cities -- including Green Bay, Kansas City and Jacksonville -- to understand current trends in stadium deals.

Populous, formerly known as HOK Sports, designed Buffalo's Coca-Cola Field as well as some of the nation's prominent sports venues, such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Jacobs Field in Cleveland and Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

"Populous has done more stadiums than anyone," Brandon said. "You look at the four main elements that they talk about. We're 1 for 4."

"They talk about seating-bowl intimacy. Check. We have the best sight-lines in the NFL. They talk about wide, spacious concourses. Connection to the on-field event both through technology and being able to see the game while you're getting a hot dog. And they talk about communal gatherings in the building. We do not have those. But through the renovation, we feel we can greatly improve that experience for our fans."

The Bills have not yet gone to Albany to discuss the study, Brandon said. However his meetings with Poloncarz have included Sam Hoyt, senior vice president for Regional Economic Development of the Empire State Development Corp., Brandon said.

Ultimately, the lease would be signed with the county and the state development agency.

"We have not made a proposal of any kind," Brandon said. "We have discussed and will continue to discuss the renovation concepts with them. We're confident we can come to a lease agreement that works for everybody involved."

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com and djgee@buffnews.com

***

*Team is proposing renovation of RalphWilsonStadium rather than a "gutting."

*Source says price tag is expected to be a little more than $200 million.

*Formal talks have begun on renewing current lease, which expires in July 2013.

***

The high cost of updating an NFL stadium

Two recent projects in mid-sized NFL cities that retrofitted aging stadiums – an option the Bills say would be too costly here

>Kansas City Chiefs

Arrowhead Stadium

Opened: 1972

Renovation completed: 2010

Cost: $400 million

Project: Retrofit of the stadium to widen concourses, add new club level venues, new tower, double bathrooms, expand concessions, new video boards

Funding: Increased county sales tax, tax credits, state funding and team funding.

*

>Green Bay Packers

Lambeau Field

Opened: 1957

Renovation completed: 2003

Cost: $295 million

Project: Retrofit project added 10,000 more seats, updated private boxes and built an indoor atrium.

Funding: Increased sales tax, season ticket user fee, team stock sale, state money and NFL funds.

Update: A $130 million renovation project funded through a team stock sale will add 6,600 more seats and new video boards.

Source: Jackson County Sports Complex Authority; Green Bay/ Brown County Professional Football Stadium District

***

STATE FUNDED

Stadium renovation: $63 million

Annual"working capital" payments to the Bills: $45 million

Rent reimbursement: $2.9 million

Lost rent payments paid to the county: $9.85 million.

*

COUNTYFUNDED

Annual game day and maintence expenses: $53.1 million

Annual capital upgrades: $38.29 million.

TOTAL: $212.15 MILLION

Source: Erie County; NewYork State Division of the Budget Agreements expire July 31, 2013