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Stadium talk is getting real, so WNY needs to get ready

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last June that the Buffalo Bills would need a new stadium in order to remain competitive in the NFL. More recently, in the week before the Super Bowl, Goodell modified his stance, saying that a substantially renovated stadium could also do the job.

Goodell’s remarks came in the same week in which Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula said that a major market research study on how to proceed on the stadium issue had been completed. It is unknown whether Goodell’s remarks reflected a preference – either by the public or the Pegulas – for renovating New Era Field rather than starting over. Goodell said he expected a decision to be made soon. The team’s current lease expires after the 2022 season.

All involved parties are on notice: Major deliberations on the future of the Bills’ stadium are coming soon. Our region needs to be ready.

The three primary options are: Keeping New Era Field, with major renovations; constructing a new stadium on the same Orchard Park site, or building downtown, presumably somewhere near Metro Rail and the Pegulas’ KeyBank Center. There is also the notion that the stadium could be combined with a new convention center, which is another major item near the top of Buffalo’s to-do list. Together, they could also leverage other projects on Buffalo’s agenda, including the Skyway, Canalside and the Outer Harbor.

Mayor Byron W. Brown has said he would love to have the stadium downtown. He says placing it in Orchard Park in the early 1970s was one of our region’s major planning mistakes. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, in his public remarks, has indicated that renovating the existing stadium might be the more prudent approach.

Terry Pegula has not expressed much of a preference, other than saying he wants to do what’s best for the fans.

The various stakeholders’ public remarks amount to trial balloons. The actual negotiations – over what to build and how to pay for it – are like a multimillion-dollar poker game, and no one is about to show his or her hand before it starts.
At the center of the discussions will be how much public money to put toward the project. With rare exceptions, sports team owners have the luxury of being able to get major contributions of taxpayer dollars to fund their facilities.

An ESPN report estimated that $6.7 billion in public money was spent on the building of 16 new NFL stadiums in the past decade, plus major renovations of three others. Two NFL stadiums – SoFi in Los Angeles and MetLife in New Jersey – were the rare exceptions, financed completely with private money.

NFL teams can use the threat of moving to another locality as leverage to secure public funding for a new stadium, either in their current city or in a new one. The taxpayers in Nevada, through municipal bonds, are funding $750 million of the new, $1.8 billion stadium being built in Paradise, Nev., which next NFL season will be the new home of the Las Vegas Raiders. (Sorry, Oakland.)

Various academics and economists have made a case for why spending public money on pro sports teams does not make financial sense, that the return on investment does not justify the outlay. Part of the argument is that the money spent by ticket-buying fans generates plenty of economic activity – benefiting the team and its employees, and hospitality businesses such as restaurants, bars, hotels and souvenir shops – but does not return much revenue to local, county and state governments. Sales tax only goes so far.

Still, the economic activity connected to the Bills does create jobs here and puts money in people’s pockets, increasing their purchasing power. (Anyone who’s ever tried ordering a pizza during halftime of a Bills game has an idea of what having an NFL team does for our pizza and beer economy.)

The Pegulas have shown no inclination to entertain offers from other cities, but for all their seeming good will, they are business people first. If negotiations reached a stalemate over public financing, it’s not realistic to think they wouldn’t take some phone calls from suitors located elsewhere.

When Poloncarz last year was discussing the need for a new convention center in Buffalo, he said the issue could be framed by one question: Do we want to be in the convention business? The same question applies to the pro football business. As taxpayers we want the best deal possible, while knowing we need to ante up to stay in the game.

Buffalo could survive the loss of the Bills, if it ever came to that. But let’s make sure it never does.

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