Marv Levy would pose the question just before games kicked off in the stadium then known as Rich. With his Buffalo Bills players huddled around him, the legendary coach would bellow above the roar of 80,000 vociferous spectators: “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”
No response was necessary. From his players. Or the fans. There was no place on earth they’d rather have been than right there, right then.
Players and coaches come and go, but sentiments endure and fields where memories are made become hallowed. Long-in-the-tooth Buffalo fans will tell you there is no place they’d rather be on game days than the stadium now known as New Era Field. Their passion for the place is understandable. This is where so many moments have been celebrated and commiserated. Most Bills aficionados have known no other football home than the one that opened in Orchard Park 45 years ago. They can’t imagine their team being anywhere else. But they may have to in the not-so-distant future.
And despite their investment of cash and emotions, they won’t have much of a say in the matter. Money trumps sentimentality in the $14-billion-a-year-and-growing business that is pro football. And the National Football League already has spoken. Quite loudly, in fact.
From the moment Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the team from the estate of late founder and owner Ralph Wilson, the Bills have been on the clock. The powerful men who run the NFL told the Pegulas that Buffalo will need to build a new state-of-the-art stadium in order to remain competitive. Interpretation: The other owners want to extract more revenues from the league’s second-smallest market, and they believe a new building will increase their take in a business where much money is shared.
Five years remain on the lease between the Bills and Erie County, so there’s a growing sense of urgency. The billion-dollar question, of course, is: Who will pay for a new stadium? Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told The Buffalo News last week the construction of a new stadium is “not in the cards” and would be too much of a financial stretch. He added that the Pegulas aren’t demanding a new playpen. Which is true. For now.
When asked last May about agreeing on a way to finance a new facility, Kim Pegula told the newspaper, “I don’t even know if we can get there.” The recent hiring of Christopher Schoepflin—the state’s top economic development official in Western New York—as vice president of external affairs and strategic development of Pegula Sports and Entertainment suggests a new stadium is on the owners’ minds.
Everything still is in the preliminary stages, but things are sure to heat up as Poloncarz, state officials and the Pegulas make their cases. The county executive recently presented proposals to build a new convention center in downtown Buffalo. The Pegulas—who’ve already invested close to $200 million in business projects in the Queen City—probably will look to build a new stadium downtown as well. Twinning stadiums with convention centers has succeeded in other cities, so that might be an option, and make the project more palatable. The team, county and state likely would seek a domed stadium, or perhaps one with a retractable roof, so the venue can be used for public events year-round. Major concerts, a college bowl game, maybe even an NCAA basketball Final Four or a Super Bowl—all would be possibilities.
The stadium issue will become contentious because taxpayer dollars will be involved, just as they were when $130 million worth of renovations were done to New Era Field as part of the ironclad lease agreement that ensured the Bills would remain in Buffalo following Wilson’s death.
Like many, I’ve grown tired of cities being held hostage by sports teams and leagues. Let these billionaires dig deep into their own wallets. And have the league contribute, too. I find it repulsive that many ultra-rich entrepreneurs grouse about government programs for the poor, but don’t have a problem accepting corporate welfare.
The other galling thing is that there is nothing wrong with New Era Field – other than it being located in a prodigious snow belt and a half-hour farther away from Rochester than it should be. It remains one of the best places to watch a game. Its sightlines are on par with any NFL stadium, and the sprawling parking lots lend themselves to epic tailgating. But none of that matters to league commissioner Roger Goodell—he of the $44-million-a-year salary—or the owners who serve as his bosses. It’s all about how much more money they can bleed from the consumer. A smaller downtown stadium will result in significantly higher ticket and parking prices, which means more game-day revenue, which means a bigger split for visiting teams trying to keep up with the (Jerry) Joneses and other avaricious NFL owners.
There’s always the chance that—upon further review and with the league’s blessing—the Pegulas could opt to update New Era Field the way the Green Bay Packers did with Lambeau Field and the Kansas City Chiefs did with Arrowhead Stadium. But an extreme makeover wouldn’t come cheaply. Two major renovations to Lambeau since 2001 cost a combined $435 million, while the Arrowhead upgrades, completed in 2010, cost $375-million.
Regardless of the decision, it’s sure to become a political football. Still, Bills fans shouldn’t have to worry about their beloved team bolting to St. Louis or San Antonio. The Pegulas spent too much money to buy the team and have invested too much in downtown Buffalo development to pull up stakes.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.