BOCA RATON, Fla. – The Buffalo Bills say there’s no rush to build a new stadium.
The NFL sees it differently.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, executives at the league office and owners of other NFL teams believe it’s imperative that the Bills have a new stadium. They see it as vital to the team’s ability to compete in a climate where other teams, along with the rest of the league, are able to reap the financial benefits newer facilities provide through higher prices and additional revenue opportunities.
A source with intimate knowledge of the NFL’s stadium situations described Ralph Wilson Stadium as one of the “three worst stadiums in the league,” along with those in Oakland and San Diego. It will look only worse when compared to state-of-the-art palaces such as AT&T Stadium in Dallas, MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and the new stadium in Los Angeles that will be the home of the former St. Louis Rams in 2019.
“It gets tougher and tougher to compete when all these new stadiums are going up and” the Bills are “going to be at a disadvantage, I think, somewhat competitively unless they get one,” New York Giants owner John Mara said. “We’d all like to see them get a new building.”
How soon? The NFL would love it to happen in five years or so. It considers it an urgent matter, although apparently not so urgent that other owners or league officials brought it up with Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who were not available to comment, or team President Russ Brandon, during the NFL meetings at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Nor was a Buffalo facility discussed in sessions dealing with stadium updates.
“I don’t think it’s urgent like it has to happen tomorrow,” Mara said. “But I think, for the long-term best interests of that franchise, they need to be in a new building. Listen, we’ve been in much worse stadiums, believe me. And they still have great fan support. But there’s a growing disparity in income between the top quartile teams and the bottom quartile teams, and that’s something we have to be conscious of. And a new stadium would help them a great deal.”
Said Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, “In general, older stadiums need to be made financially competitive. It’s a must. It makes the odds a lot tougher. You need to have a viable, financially well-thought-out stadium to compete in the league.”
That could be of the newer variety, or those, such as the one in Jacksonville, Fla., that have undergone major upgrades. The NFL doesn’t see the $130-million face-lift of The Ralph as major.
“No, it isn’t,” said a league official, who requested anonymity. “In fact, I was not for that renovation. None of us were. In other words, we thought we should have gone right to the question of what should be the big renovation or a new facility. Because if you’re going to build one, you’re going to try to break ground within five or 10 years from now. If you’re going to do that, then you sort of didn’t need to spend that $130 million. You should have saved that for the new facility.
“But,” Gov. Andrew “Cuomo being Cuomo, that’s what he wanted to do and the former owner,” Ralph Wilson, “that’s what he wanted to do. So they did it. I think the fans will enjoy the change in amenities, but I don’t think it will reset the clock other than for a few years.”
Brandon said the Bills are not worried about the structural integrity of The Ralph.
“The building has great bones, it has great sight lines, and it has great tailgating,” he said. “Do we have the bells and whistles of all the new facilities that are on line today? No. But one of the things is that we’re a volume business. We have a lot of suites, we have a lot of club seats, we have a lot of seats in the building. Everything that we do is affordable. But at the same time, part of adding additional suites and additional club seats at our price points was to stay in line with the new NFL at the time, going all the way back to 1999.
“Obviously, you always have great respect for what your (league) partners” want, “but we have to focus on what makes sense for us, what makes sense for our community, for our business partners.”
A new stadium would undoubtedly drive up the cost of attending games. It creates the distinct possibility of pricey personal seat licenses to buy season tickets that are far more expensive than what fans are accustomed to paying for a team whose ticket prices have been among the most affordable in the NFL.
Another challenge would be filling premium seats and luxury suites that also would be much more expensive in a new stadium.
“We’ve seen a great rebirth in Buffalo that everyone’s excited about, but we’re not a multi-Fortune 500 city,” Brandon said. “People talk to me a lot of times about Minnesota, they compare us to Minnesota. Those markets are two very different markets. So we want to make it right for the long-term future of the organization from what our fans want and from what our stakeholders want.
“I will tell you that we hear from our fans and survey our fans and stakeholders continually on fan engagement, best practices, so on and so forth, and I can tell you unequivocally the stadium is never really brought up as something of discontent with our fans.”
So if the fans aren’t clamoring for a new stadium and the Bills aren’t pushing for one, then why should anyone supporting the team in the community have an interest in one being built?
“A big part of it is revenue,” the league official said. “And if the team just continues to fall behind, while this owner may be OK with it, a future owner may not. So it’s not a good thing for any club to fall so far behind the pack.”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who was at The Ralph with his team last December, was impressed with how well the facility was maintained and would not characterize replacing it as a necessity. He also said he has not heard fellow NFL owners complaining about where the Bills play.
However, Jones believes the Pegulas recognize what it takes to keep pace competitively with the rest of the league and will figure out a long-term stadium solution.
“They walked in the room as one of the best owners in the NFL; I’d say top five,” Jones said. “And so once they assess it with a season or two, look at it, if there is any issue there, they won’t need (the rest of the league’s) ownership to tell them about it.”
Said Mara, “I’d like to see them get a new stadium. I want to see them remain in Western New York. They’re too important to that part of the state and they have such a great fan base, such great fan support there. It’s really where they belong.”
Once, a new stadium seemed like a priority for the Bills. Once, there was something called a “new stadium working group” comprising officials from the Bills, New York State and Erie County.
That was when the Bills’ future in Western New York was uncertain, when the team was up for sale and the Pegulas had yet to purchase it and put so much of that anxiety to rest.
There hasn’t been a peep from the new stadium working group in a long time, which raises the question: Is it still working?
“It’s actually been suspended, I guess you could say,” Brandon said.
Brandon acknowledged that replacing The Ralph, where the Bills have played since 1973, is “a hot topic” about which he is asked frequently.
“And I can tell you directly that we’ve had zero discussions relative to anything related to a new stadium with the county, the state at this point,” Brandon said. “With the lease being up when it is (through 2022), there’s going to be very thoughtful conversation in both the private and public sector down the road if” building a new stadium is “the route we go. But we have to make a macro-level decision that benefits the entire community.”