Share this article

print logo

Ralph Wilson Stadium’s shortcomings give weight to push for a new stadium

Western New York taxpayers who think they can keep the Buffalo Bills in Western New York without having to subsidize construction of a new stadium have something new to think about. Stories earlier this week in The Buffalo News presented powerful reasons to believe that for the region to continue to play in this big league, it will have to provide what passes these days for a big-league stadium.

That doesn’t automatically mean a new stadium will be required, and it certainly doesn’t mean that there is no room for tough negotiations if, in fact, one is going to be necessary. But it is clear from the stories that ran on Sunday and Monday that Ralph Wilson Stadium is substandard, and in just about every way, including its location and, critically, the amount of revenue it can produce.

A new stadium typically increases the value of an NFL team by 25 to 30 percent, according to John Vrooman, a sports economist at Vanderbilt University. That’s a huge amount of money, enough to command the attention of the league and its team owners, who share revenues.

Modern NFL stadiums provide more amenities for fans, have more high-priced suites for sale to big spenders, include rental space for other functions and, by simple virtue of newness, allow owners to charge more for tickets.

Those factors would apply to any team, but they take on a special significance in Buffalo, the league’s second-smallest market that last year also had the league’s second-lowest ticket prices. The market’s size works against the current stadium’s location in Orchard Park.

Because Buffalo is a small market – and for years, a shrinking one – the team’s financial success depends in no small part on attracting fans from Rochester and especially from the wealthier enclaves of Toronto. Traveling to Orchard Park is a disincentive to many fans. A stadium in, or at least nearer to, Buffalo would make more geographic sense and allow the team to better leverage more distant fan bases.

The existing stadium has functioned reasonably well for years, but that was in large part due to the devotion Ralph Wilson, the team’s late owner, had to Buffalo. He was willing to make less on the team than he could have by demanding a brand new stadium or, critically, by moving to a larger and wealthier city, such as Toronto.

In truth, moving a team is no easy feat, but without a setting that maximizes the team’s economic potential, the barriers to a move would be lowered. That’s because in the National Football League, a $9 billion operation, 80 percent of revenues are shared among the 32 teams. Thus, a bigger stadium in Buffalo means more money for all owners and diminishes the possibility that the necessary three-fourths of member clubs would vote to allow the Bills to move.

Together, these factors provide a powerful argument in favor of a new stadium. It is, in some ways, a galling prospect – billionaire team owners demanding an expensive new stadium funded in part by a poor region – but the simple fact is that that’s the price of admission these days, and if Buffalo doesn’t want to pay it, some other city certainly will.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has been skeptical about building a stadium and, to a lesser extent, so has Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, both of whom would have to tap their tax bases to support any such project. That skepticism is appropriate, at least at this stage. This is a negotiation, after all, and it would be foolish to start from the proposition that a new stadium is a dandy idea and taxpayers will be pleased to help defray the billionaires’ expenses.

As discussions continue, as they must, any proposal to build a new stadium needs to provide direct benefits for taxpayers. That should include, at a minimum, a guarantee that the team will not move for decades to come. It should also require the league to abandon game blackouts when the stadium is not sold out.

All taxpayers will be required to pitch in to this enterprise, if a new stadium is on the horizon, and they should benefit. One way to do that is to ensure that they can see the games their tax dollars are helping to make possible. That’s fair.