The Buffalo Bills decision to call an audible on the location of their proposed new stadium caught me by surprise. They ran the ball, so to speak, when I was expecting a pass. I thought for sure the team was headed to downtown Buffalo for the construction of a domed, harbor-front stadium that could be utilized for year-round events, including mega concerts and conventions, and maybe even an NCAA Basketball Final Four.
Instead, if the latest stories are to be believed, the Bills have opted to stay in Orchard Park, where they reportedly will build a new edifice rather than renovate the cavernous, 71,000-seat outdoor arena they’ve called home since O.J. Simpson was taking fans on a 2,003-yard football odyssey 48 autumns ago. My sense is that long-time Bills fans are happy with this news because that Buffalo suburb has been home to so many fond (and not-so fond) memories, and affords the table-smashing tailgating space a shoe-horned downtown stadium would not.
The Bills lease with Erie County expires after next season. NFL stadium projects — from drawing board to final rivet and coat of paint — usually take five years to complete. So, the meter definitely is running, though the team and county certainly could extend the current agreement a year or two.
As I write this, neither the Bills nor the state has commented on the reports. Of the major players, only Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has chimed in, stressing in a recent interview with Buffalo radio station WGR that no agreement has been reached.
“I want people to understand that,” he said. “The state, county and the Bills have discussed the matter, but there is no agreement. As I said before, when we did the last lease negotiations in 2012 and 2013, we will not announce a plan until we have an agreement on a plan.”
To paraphrase Van Miller, the long-time radio voice of the Bills, fasten your seatbelts everyone because these negotiations, like several previous ones, could turn into a political football.
The $2 billion question is this: Who is going to foot the bill for such an enormously expensive undertaking? County and state tax dollars were used for the construction of the stadium originally known as Rich nearly a half century ago. The price tag was $22 million — roughly $128 million in today’s dollars. Taxpayers also were forced to dig into their wallets to help fund a $63 million renovation of the renamed Ralph Wilson Stadium in 1999, and a $130-million makeover in 2013.
Given the state’s fiscal unfitness following the pandemic, you’d have a tough time selling the idea of a new playpen for billionaire NFL owners at a time when many hard-working New Yorkers are struggling to make their next mortgage or rent payment. But politicians have a history of caving in when these issues arise, especially when major sports franchises play the trump card of threatening to leave town.
Don’t get me wrong. Last thing I want to see is the Bills bolt. I’ve been writing about them since 1985, so I’m intimately aware how the franchise is part of our region’s DNA, our collective identity. An NFL franchise puts us on the map, adds to our quality of life. I couldn’t imagine Western New York without the Bills.
That said, there comes a time when pleas for corporate welfare ring hollow. Like many captains of industry, Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula took a hit during the COVID shutdown that banned fans from attending all eight regular-season home games. And that blow was harder on the Bills than on big-market teams, which are much less reliant on ticket and beer sales. But despite the drain on its coffers, Pegula Sports and Entertainment (which also owns and operates hockey’s Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans) is still flush with cash. The Pegulas’ $1.1 billion investment to purchase the Bills eight years ago has paid huge dividends, with Forbes estimating the franchise’s current value at $2 billion. And let’s not forget their share of the NFL’s extraordinary and ever-growing television revenues. The league recently negotiated an 11-year, $113 billion multimedia contract. The Bills will receive one-thirty-second of those revenues over the course of the deal — a not-too-shabby $3.5 billion.
Clearly, a huge chunk of that change could be applied toward the new stadium. And there’s no reason the NFL shouldn’t also cough up some of their riches to aid a franchise in the league’s second smallest market. Commissioner Roger Goodell, a Southern Tier native, has been clamoring for a new stadium the minute the Pegulas joined the fraternity. So, it would be nice if the NFL, for a change, showed us the money.
If the Bills new stadium is built on its original footprint, the team will have to spend at least two seasons playing somewhere else. Toronto’s Rogers Centre and Penn State’s Beaver Stadium have been mentioned as temporary homes, but both sites are problematic. Though Canada’s most populous city is just an hour’s drive up the Queen Elizabeth Way, the stadium’s capacity is just 50,000. And Happy Valley would result in a lot of unhappy campers because that trek to Central Pennsylvania will be three-to-four hours one way for most Bills Mafia members.
As someone who covered Syracuse University football when it played all its games on the road in 1979 while the Carrier Dome was being built on the site of old Archbold Stadium, I can attest to how onerous a home-away-from-home home schedule can be. It’s a huge competitive disadvantage, and quite stressful on the players and coaches charged with pulling it off. I can’t fathom an NFL team being forced to do that for two or three seasons, let alone one. Poloncarz appeared to leave the door open for the Bills performing an extreme makeover on their current digs the way the Kansas City Chiefs did with Arrowhead Stadium and the Green Bay Packers did with Lambeau Field. Perhaps there’s even a way to do that in increments, like Syracuse did with its recent Dome renovations.
And who knows? Maybe another audible will be called, and downtown Buffalo will be back in play. Stay tuned.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.