There are a couple of ways to view the landscape of new NFL stadiums over the past decade.
First, we won't be able to keep up with the Joneses. In this case, that would be Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose retractable roof stadium in Arlington, Texas, was partially funded by exorbitant, personal seat license fees. His iconic stadium, built nearly 10 years ago for $1.2 billion, almost looks like a bargain compared to the most luxurious palaces that have opened since or are on their way.
A world-class, $5 billion Los Angeles-style stadium will not be coming to Western New York.
On the other hand, the NFL has moved away from massive public funding of stadium construction over the past decade. In some cases, owners have ponied up the bulk or all of the financing for their new stadiums on their own. While a new Bills stadium is not out of the question, there are examples of existing stadium overhauls that could serve as a blueprint for the Bills.
Comments this week from Bills owner Terry Pegula and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz suggest advantages to substantially renovating New Era Field, which remains structurally sound. There's good precedent.
- Kansas City’s 2010 overhaul of Arrowhead Stadium cost $375 million – about $250 million in taxpayer money – and both Chiefs owners and fans were thrilled with the result.
- Miami’s modernization of its stadium, completed in 2017, was a privately funded, $500 million project that brought the Dolphins franchise up to competitive NFL standards.
- And there's Green Bay, which overhauled Lambeau Field in 2003, making the stadium more of a year-round destination for fans as a way to grow revenue.
"You have to make the determination of do you build a new stadium or do you renovate the existing stadium and get the best bang for the buck," Poloncarz told The Buffalo News after Pegula's comments about a "Buffalo-style" stadium. "We know if we can extend the lifespan of that stadium for another 25 years, and if it worked for our market, why would we not do that?"
New Era Field offers some of the best sight lines in the NFL, Poloncarz said. And recently upgraded club and luxury box spaces, infrastructure, access and tailgating options are already baked into the site. That means a stadium renovation will likely remain a serious contender as decision-makers consider their options.
Poloncarz pointed out that $130 million was earmarked for New Era Field upgrades in the last lease agreement, and Terry and Kim Pegula have invested another $36 million of their own money to improve the stadium and practice facility since buying the team.
"I find it hard to believe the Pegulas would invest $36 million of their own money in a stadium they plan on leaving in a few years," Poloncarz said.
During the last negotiations, the Bills proposed a big expansion similar to what happened at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. That included blowing out the concourses, creating a bigger footprint and including large event and meeting spaces. In the end, the two sides agreed on a smaller, $130 million project.
If a new stadium is considered, neither Pegula nor Poloncarz expect it to rival facilities like those in deep-pocket markets.
Pegula stated Tuesday that he thinks "the answer is probably a scaled-down version of some of these palaces that are being built around the country."
Poloncarz has expressed reservations about building a stadium downtown, and he dismissed questions about linking a new stadium to a new convention center.
"If you’re going to build a new stadium, you're going to spend at least a billion dollars, even if it’s not the fanciest stadium in the world," he said. "It will be expensive, but rarely do you ever see an economic impact in a positive manner for community."
Minneapolis is an example of a city that has much in common with the Buffalo market. That city built a $1.1 billion stadium from scratch in a model that could be followed in Western New York.
Indianapolis, another similar market, built a downtown stadium in 2008 connected to a new convention center for $720 million. While a comparative bargain even when adjusted for inflation in today's dollars, taxpayers in surrounding counties had to subsidize the bulk of that cost.
Buffalo has one advantage many other new-stadium cities did not. It has team owners committed to staying in town.
"That’s a very, very good thing, because we can have a fair negotiation for what’s right for this community," Poloncarz said, "instead of, 'if you don’t do this, we’re moving,' which is like a gun to the head."
The current Bills lease expires after the 2022 season. New negotiations cannot begin in earnest until after the findings of the Pegulas' market research study, commissioned this past fall, are complete.
Poloncarz said the Pegulas have indicated that since the study is privately funded, many elements of the report will likely remain under wraps as proprietary information. That means county and state officials negotiating new lease terms with the Pegulas may not be privy to the report findings, he said.