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'A lot of devil in the details': What the Bills' deadline means for Orchard Park stadium talks

'A lot of devil in the details': What the Bills' deadline means for Orchard Park stadium talks

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Negotiations for a new stadium are hurtling toward a date set by the Buffalo Bills: Dec. 31. That’s when the officials representing team owners Terry and Kim Pegula have long said they want a deal – or, at minimum, the major details of one – in place.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, whose job essentially makes him the landlord of the publicly owned stadium, has expressed shades of optimism that it can happen – “I’d like to get it done by the end of the year,” he said in mid-December.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, who will be responsible for delivering the bulk of the money for a projected $1.4 billion National Football League stadium, laid out two scenarios during a recent news conference: the end of the year (a nod to the Bills’ timeline) or the end of March, which coincides with the the state budget approval deadline of April 1. That also aligns with the NFL calendar, since owners meet in late March in Florida and would need to approve an agreement.

"We're very excited about announcing a deal hopefully in the near future,” Hochul said, “but a lot of devil in the details." 

Those devilish details are dollars: They’re the big thing remaining that could plunge a pitchfork into a deal. The other major points have already been decided: A state-commissioned study released in November eliminated the possibility of renovating Highmark Stadium, which opened in 1973 and would need extensive repairs to last beyond the next half dozen years or so.

Hochul, meanwhile, erased any uncertainty about the location of a new stadium – city or suburbs? – when she endorsed the latter last week.

“If (the Bills’) desire is Orchard Park, it’s Orchard Park,” she told reporters. “We’ve never said otherwise.”

And so the negotiations are down to money – or, more specifically, finances plus politics and perceptions and timing.

On the government side, spinning the expenditure of hundreds of millions of – or even a billion – dollars to support a wealthy team in an even wealthier league is a tricky sell. Governmental support for business happens all the time, from industrial development incentives that lure corporations to build warehouses and offices to tax breaks that entice Hollywood studios to shoot movies far outside Los Angeles. But many of those deals include a requirement to produce jobs.

This agreement would do something else, although not altogether dissimilar: It would keep the Buffalo Bills in Western New York.

There are plenty of other places the Bills could be, and presumably generate more revenue. Buffalo, which is 53rd in Nielsen TV market size rankings, is the second-smallest region in the NFL. Western New York also has the league’s second-smallest corporate base and the fourth-smallest median household income. While the Bills do receive a large amount through NFL revenue sharing ($309.2 million in 2020), the team is limited by market size in how much it can charge for tickets, sponsorships and premium seating.

While nobody involved in the negotiations is sharing how much each side is willing to contribute to the cost of a stadium, those market-size limitations are shaping the Bills’ position. The team pays a relatively small rent ($862,000 annually) for Highmark Stadium and contributed about 27% of the cost of renovations built into the 2013 lease, which expires in 2023.

The state and county paid the other 73% of the renovation costs, which were $130 million in total. That same figure – 73% – also happens to be how much the public paid for stadium costs in the nine NFL regions with the smallest populations, according to a Buffalo News analysis, which may provide a hint at how much the team is seeking from the government side. Bills officials have consistently declined to comment on how much the team is willing to pay for a stadium, but the Pegulas’ executive who represents them in negotiations did frame the situation in a November interview with The News.

“The Bills have operated on a business model that’s predicated on a stadium that was paid for by the state and the county, with shared expenses between the Bills and those entities,” said Ron Raccuia, the executive vice president of Pegula Sports and Entertainment. “Any fundamental change to that would require a change in our business model.”

The most drastic change – although Raccuia didn’t state this in the interview – would be moving the team. Along with international cities such as London or Toronto, there are at least 10 larger markets in the United States that don’t have an NFL team but could support one. Those include Orlando (No. 17 in the Nielsen ranking), Portland (No. 21), St. Louis (No. 23), San Diego (No. 27), Salt Lake City (No. 30), San Antonio (No. 31) or nearby Austin (no. 38), Birmingham (No. 45) and Louisville (No. 49).

While no sides are divulging the details of the negotiations, there’s also little reason to think the Bills are actively threatening to move. After Hochul publicly supported the Orchard Park location and possibility of wrapping the major points of a deal by year’s end, the Pegulas’ top executive issued a short statement.

“We appreciate the governor’s comments this morning,” Raccuia said. “There’s a lot of work to be done and we continue those efforts.”

When contacted by The News this week, Raccuia declined to comment any further. But previous public statements from Raccuia and PSE may provide a window into their thinking.

In a September interview with the Associated Press, Raccuia addressed the topic of relocation by saying, “We’re not even focused on that, yet,” and, “It’s not where any of our focus or resources are being dedicated.”

The question, then, is what circumstances would shift the Bills’ focus to other more populated and potentially lucrative regions? And when would that happen?

Nobody is saying, and for good reason. The question isn’t yet real; it is simply a worst-case, what-if muse.

In a statement issued to The News on Dec. 17 – three days before Hochul publicly endorsed the Orchard Park location – PSE spokesman Jim Wilkinson acknowledged the “general consensus that the current stadium is obsolete, renovation is not an option and that the new stadium should be in Orchard Park.”

He then alluded to the Bills’ Dec. 31 target for having the major aspects of a deal in place.

“Everyone has also been on the same page publicly in terms of the very real deadline,” Wilkinson said. “Time is short and the broad consensus that exists today needs to become action in short order.”

If talks move fast, New Year’s Eve – or the days leading to it – could involve a triumphant press conference announcing a stadium deal. Or, theoretically, the sides could be deeply distanced, inviting out-of-town suitors to start calling on the Bills – or vice versa. But there’s a third possibility, one that’s ho-hum and anticlimactic: The state, county and team may need a little more time, and the calendar suggests they have it. Hochul’s budget is submitted to the state legislature in late January and then negotiated for the next two months, with the state constitution requiring approval by April 1. Poloncarz and the Erie County Legislature can presumably operate on a similar timeline. The NFL owners, meanwhile, need to approve a deal as well, and that, too, can happen in the last week of March. (If it doesn’t, the owners don’t meet as a full group again until October, which would effectively delay a stadium project by a year.)

Informally, NFL owners and executives will be meeting and talking in February at the Super Bowl in Los Angeles, and it will be important for the Pegulas to arrive with positive news.

Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant who’s worked with NFL teams, has told The News that league owners are supportive of having a team in Buffalo, but not unconditionally. If owners began getting a sense that the Bills were not receiving strong backing from elected officials, they could become open as a group to seeing the team locate elsewhere.

“The best thing that Buffalo has going for them about having an NFL team in the future is that they have one today,” Ganis said in an interview in the fall. “I can’t emphasize strongly enough: Don’t lose what you’ve got, because Buffalo would not be thought of as a relocation market down the road.”

But that’s only hypothetical right now, and this storyline isn’t heading in that direction. Hochul and Poloncarz have been supportive, and one of the country’s most powerful politicians is also watching, talking and poised to get involved. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Brooklyn Democrat, has long been involved in efforts to secure the Bills’ future in Western New York. That dates back to the early 2000s, when team founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr. was alive and plans were being made to lock the Bills into Buffalo even after his death. Schumer worked with a notable list of Western New Yorkers in that effort, including former Bills quarterback-turned-political leader Jack Kemp, the NBC newsman Tim Russert and then-Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey.

The senator has both the weight and the will to help pull the sides together, and call on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell – a Western New York native – if the league’s support, or even money, is needed to make a deal whole.

“Since the days of Ralph Wilson, Tim Russert, Stan Lipsey and Jack Kemp, Sen. Schumer has always said he would do whatever it takes to keep the Bills in Buffalo, and that remains exactly what he’s prepared to do,” Schumer spokeswoman Allison Biasotti said. “Sen. Schumer is in regular contact with the team, the league and the governor, and will play whatever role is needed to reach an agreement and secure the team for all coming time.”

News staff reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report.

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