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Editorial: A new stadium in play

The owners of the Buffalo Bills, Terry and Kim Pegula, are starting what figures to be a long process of negotiations over how to get a new stadium built for the team.

Replacing New Era Field might not have the same urgency as developing a quarterback, but it has to get done eventually to secure the long-term viability of the Bills in Western New York.

The team has five years remaining on its current stadium lease, with an opt-out clause in 2020 that they say will not be used. The stadium underwent $130 million in renovations in 2014, funded by New York State, Erie County and the Bills. The team is also planning an $18 million renovation this year, privately funded.

Estimates start at $1 billion for the cost of a new venue. Kim Pegula told The News last week that putting a deal together to build one is daunting.

“I know fans in Buffalo don’t want higher ticket prices, they don’t want PSLs (personal seat licenses). The state doesn’t want to give you any money, the city doesn’t ... We don’t have a billion-and-a-half dollars sitting around. We used it to buy the team.”

What was then called Rich Stadium opened in 1973 in Orchard Park, which makes it practically a senior citizen in stadium years.

The idea of building a new facility in downtown Buffalo has been floated. Or, a new stadium could replace the current one on the same site. Failing that, the team could invest in retooling the stadium they have.

The choice of location will be an integral part of the discussions, but it’s a decision that can wait. The important thing is for the Bills, government officials in the county and state, as well as the taxpayers and fans to come to grips with the need to get a new stadium built.

Buffalo’s fan base, the self-described Bills Mafia, is as loyal as any, but love isn’t enough in the NFL. The Bills are one of the small-market teams falling behind in the race to stay economically relevant in the league. In the past three years, the St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders all made the decision to leave their home markets and move to new cities with the promise of more profitable stadium deals.

NFL teams share the revenue from their very-profitable TV contracts, but do not share most local stadium revenues. That means teams from markets like Buffalo, Jacksonville and Cincinnati are falling further behind big-market behemoths like the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots.

As player salaries continue to rise, it will become more difficult for the Bills to maintain their profitability in future years. That is why they will eventually need a new building, with its promise of more luxury suites and club seats to sell, other new sponsorship opportunities, and physical and technological improvements to help attract a new generation of fans.

There is pressure from the rest of the league for small-market teams to keep up. Several years ago, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told the Wall Street Journal, “The big concern I have is not how to equalize the disparity in revenue but how to get the clubs that are not generating the revenue to see the light.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking at a news conference last Wednesday in Orlando, Fla., took note of the fact that the Bills are in “the very early stage” of planning for what’s next with their stadium.

At some point the negotiations will include the governor, the county executive, the mayor and other government officials. All parties will have to figure out how much tax revenue – our money – will go to funding a stadium. That there will be some is all but inevitable.

One of the sticking points in these discussions is how much should taxpayers be on the hook for a building whose reason for being is to host eight home football games a year. There’s also talk in Buffalo about the need for a new convention center, another heavy lift financially. The idea of finding a way to combine them, making the new stadium part of a multi-use complex or facility, is well worth studying.

In any case, the clock is ticking – and deadlines are closer than they appear.

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