Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz says, “I disagree that a new owner needs a new stadium for the team to be viable here. The team is viable right now, in this stadium.” (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

It’s nice to see a politician punch back. Mark Poloncarz came out swinging last week, pounding away at Roger Goodell’s logic-defying suggestion that the NFL can’t make it here without a new stadium. The county executive wants the NFL commissioner to open the league’s books and make the case. I can understand why. The Bills aren’t just scraping by in their current digs, they’re printing money.

“I want proof that a new stadium is needed before we commit to it,” Poloncarz told me. “I disagree that a new owner needs a new stadium for the team to be viable here. The team is viable right now, in this stadium.”

Instead of being a pushover, Poloncarz is pushing back.

It would be easy for him to curl into the fetal position in the face of the NFL juggernaut. By standing tall, I think Poloncarz isn’t just forcing the NFL bullies to prove their case. I think he’s watching taxpayers’ backs, in a way that will help to keep the team in town.

Poloncarz is playing offense for a couple of reasons: One, he thinks there’s a limit to what a county wrapped around the nation’s fourth-poorest city can – or should – pay for a stadium of questionable need, to further pad a billionaire’s profits. Two, he doesn’t – echoing a point I’ve previously pounded – see how a new stadium significantly pads an owner’s profit. Not when the community lacks the corporate and private wealth to shell out for the pricier luxury seating, seat licenses, season tickets, sponsorships and ads that come with a new building.

Greater Buffalo still doesn’t have a single, home-based Fortune 500 company. Although we recently stopped bleeding population, the county has lost 30,000 people this millennium. Where’s the money coming from to not just build a new stadium, but to pay more to fill it?

“In this market, I don’t see the Bills being able to charge that much more, even on the premise of a new stadium,” said Poloncarz. “There’s a limit to the number of corporations or people who can afford luxury boxes or costlier seating.”

Poloncarz noted that the Bills, with renovations in recent years, haven’t added more luxury seating. They’ve subtracted it.

“There’s not a demand for it,” Poloncarz said.

Still, the team – largely because of its share of the NFL’s mammoth broadcast rights bounty – is comfortably profitable. Which is why Goodell’s claim that the Bills aren’t viable here without a new playpen doesn’t pass the smell test.

Assuming the next owner doesn’t take on debt to buy the team, he will pocket the same $35 million annual pre-tax profit that Forbes magazine estimated the late Ralph Wilson enjoyed in recent years.

Tying a new stadium to the Bills’ viability here is like concluding you need a new car when the old one runs just fine. I suspect that any stadium cost/benefit analysis will favor the Bills’ current home – which has great sight lines, a shelf life that extends for another 35 years and is coming off a $130 million facelift.

Not only doesn’t a new stadium work for the community, I don’t see how it works for the next owner.

The price tag on a new stadium is in the $800 million range. State and county taxpayers would be on the hook for hundreds of millions. The next owner presumably would toss in upwards of $100 million, on top of shelling out about $1 billion for the team. Why would a new owner want a new building, if it’s going to bring only a marginal return?

“I’d think that the last thing an owner wants to do,” Poloncarz told me, “is spend more money, or take on more debt, for a new stadium that’s not going to generate that much more revenue for him.”

Significantly, the NFL was not pounding the “new stadium” drum while Wilson was alive, nor when it signed off on the current Bills’ lease barely a year ago. My sense is the owners saw a chance to squeeze more shared-revenue bucks out of Buffalo and sent Goodell – their $35-million-a-year front man – to deliver the message.

“The NFL is a business, and the owners are trying to get maximum revenue for themselves,” said Poloncarz. “The Jerry Joneses and Dan Snyders don’t care if that hurts Erie County.”

Poloncarz does.

“We need to let this play out, sit down with the next owner and see what works best long-term,” he said. “I’m not just going to roll over for a new stadium.”

Under the current 10-year lease, the Bills get an annual average of $9 million county tax dollars (subtracting their rent payment) and another $12-plus million from state taxpayers in capital costs/expenses. Sports economists agree that an NFL team brings little economic return. Its main value is in such intangibles as communal bonding and identity.

“We don’t ignore the Bills, and want to keep them,” said Poloncarz. “But we have a lot of needs in this community – parks, senior services, libraries, emergency services, roads, health care, child protection, veterans. I have a duty to provide those services.”

Goodell and the NFL’s billionaire owners don’t much care about that. Poloncarz has to.

It’s nice to see some pushback, from a politician who won’t be pushed around.


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