NFL owners step up pressure for new Bills stadium, Schumer says Congress could chip in funds

I’ve heard of sports team owners standing back and letting league officials do the heavy pressuring around new stadiums, but the scene in Buffalo, where Bills owner Terry Pegula has been saying he doesn’t need a new stadium anytime soon while sportswriters and now NFL officials say otherwise, is just bizarre:

A source with intimate knowledge of the NFL’s stadium situations described Ralph Wilson Stadium as one of the “three worst stadiums in the league,” along with those in Oakland and San Diego…

“It gets tougher and tougher to compete when all these new stadiums are going up and” the Bills are “going to be at a disadvantage, I think, somewhat competitively unless they get one,” New York Giants owner John Mara said. “We’d all like to see them get a new building.”…

The NFL doesn’t see the $130-million face-lift of The Ralph as major.

“No, it isn’t,” said a league official, who requested anonymity. “In fact, I was not for that renovation. None of us were. In other words, we thought we should have gone right to the question of what should be the big renovation or a new facility. Because if you’re going to build one, you’re going to try to break ground within five or 10 years from now. If you’re going to do that, then you sort of didn’t need to spend that $130 million. You should have saved that for the new facility.”

There are so many possibilities here of what’s going on: Pegula could be playing good cop, and letting his fellow owners rattle the new-stadium saber on his behalf; there could genuinely be a split between him and the rest of the league on how soon to push for a new stadium right after the state of New York spent $130 million to renovate the old one; or everyone involved could be in agreement to wait a few years and then see where the political climate stands.

Regardless, even this level of non-threats has seemingly shaken loose a potential offer of stadium cash from one local politician:

[U.S. Senator Charles] Schumer says he’s talked with National Football League Commissioner Roger Goddell and Bills owner Terry Pegula.

“The original rush to build a stadium was to keep the Bills in Buffalo, and the stadium would. Pegula’s committed to Buffalo. Everyone’s convinced he’s committed to Buffalo. And so…there’ll be talk about a stadium. Nothing definitive nothing answered. But I don’t think there’s a rush towards it.”

But when the time comes, Schumer says, he want’s to do the right thing for Buffalo. And he says some federal funding may be available for infrastructure improvements required for any potential stadium site.

If there’s anything that should cheer you up with tax day just a couple of weeks away, it’s the prospect of your federal tax dollars soon going to help the Buffalo Bills owner get a new stadium. Because don’t we all want to do the right thing for Buffalo?

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31 comments on “NFL owners step up pressure for new Bills stadium, Schumer says Congress could chip in funds

  1. What is “right for Buffalo” is debatable and is part of a bigger picture, as I understand it. It just means another city is taking advantage of a corrupt tax code to finance something with tax resources it should instead be spending on basic infrastructure. Then when basic infrastructure is neglected and goes awry, they will depend on tax resources within and outside the state to bail them out. Please correct me if I am wrong on this.

  2. I’ve always wondered about the “new stadium to compete” thing. If that’s the case why haven’t the Twins, Bengals, Reds, Mariners, 49er’s, Pirates, Orioles, won a championship in the last 10 years? The Bengals have never won a championship nor have the Mariners. It’s been a long time for the Orioles, Pirates, 49er’s, and Twins….

  3. The “new stadium to compete” thing is nonsense in the NFL, with a salary cap and $bazillion in TV money to each team annually. They must be thinking of “compete” as the pursuit of some desired level of profitability.

  4. As long as the Packers keep winning at Lambeau, aren’t these “renovating makes no sense” arguments just silly? At the heart of a modern (and beloved) stadium beats a decades-old bowl with metal bleachers for 80-90% of fans. Why can’t they do that in Buffalo? (Or if that’s what they’re doing, why isn’t that enough?)

  5. The real problem (unfortunately) is that Buffalo is probably one of the worst markets for the NFL–small, declining population, poor, low corporate base. They are in the NFL now because they had a well-financed and highly-competent owner in the AFL who was able to work a lot of magic in the NFL for small-market teams.

    Politicians can build any stadium they want and coat it in solid gold, but unless there is greater ability for the team’s fans to buy more expensive tickets, eat more food, and buy more merchandise, their “competitiveness” really won’t be improved.

    The St. Louis situation demonstrates that there may be a lack of willingness within emerging NFL owners to maintain the “rising tide lifts all boats” mentality of their predecessors. Many of these owners probably ask why the NFL keeps such a theoretically valuable asset in such a suboptimal financial location when profitable international locations (London?) or other domestic markets beckon.

  6. Except that, now that LA is taken, there aren’t any places left on the board that are better than St. Louis. What major US city that could seriously support an NFL team doesn’t have one right now? Portland, maybe?

    London is a pipe dream. The logistical nightmare of a team in the UK would outweigh any kind of benefit.

  7. While I have been to the state of New York many times, I’ve never been to the Buffalo area, (closest I’ve been would be Niagara Falls and Toronto). I’m sure there are some great people and wonderful fans of the Bills there who love and support their team. However, the idea of “federal support” for something that is clearly a local concern just gives you an idea as to how little so many politicians think of spending our money.

  8. In other recent news, updated census numbers had Buffalo dropping to #50 in largest US metros. If trends continue it will likely be out of the top 50 by the next decadal census.

  9. You guys seem to misunderstand “we need a new stadium to compete.” It doesn’t mean “we need a new stadium to win games.” Often it either means “we need a new stadium for the owner to compete with his fellow owners for richest guy in the room.” Other times it means “we need a new stadium to compete with other entertainment options in the region”. Given we’re talking about Buffalo I assume these means eating $100 of beef on weck sandwiches, which despite it will likely cause vomiting in those quantities might be better than going to a Bills game.

  10. “The real problem (unfortunately) is that Buffalo is probably one of the worst markets for the NFL–small, declining population, poor, low corporate base.”

    It’s only a “real problem” (i.e. not getting every possible penny) for the Buffalo owner. There is no such thing as a bad market for the NFL. The salary cap is $150M-something per year and each team gets over $200M/year from national revenues. Tickets and other stadium-related income is all gravy.

  11. Re: The Buffalo market. No one would argue Buffalo is a great thriving city, nor that it has been since back when President McKinley thought a visit would be a splendid idea, however it’s not like the Bills can easily move.

    Owners do move and just accept that they are now pariahs in their old cities. However, Terry Pegula also owns the Sabres. I know of no owner who has ever moved one sports franchise out of a city and tried to sell tickets for another in the same city at the same time. I mean imagine if Art Modell owned the Cavs and tried to show up for a game.

  12. If this is in fact about the NFL wanting to move the Bills to a wealthier location, any chance this is about Toronto? Maybe 5 years down the road the Canadian dollar won’t be in the dumps as much as it is today.

  13. Build them the stadium for a 20% equity stake in the team.
    The crying poor will end immediately.

  14. I have been to Buffalo and like it, despite its obvious economic challenges. I would not want the team to move.

    I think many owners, especially now, would disagree about whether there are “bad markets” in the NFL. There are a limited number of teams, and while in the short term adding a team gives owners cash, it also creates the problem of “another mouth to feed” with revenue sharing. The value of that new team is determined by whether it adds more in national TV revenue and other metrics. The NFL in the last few decades has probably made some good decisions on this (Seattle, for example) and some poor ones (Tampa, Jacksonville). Which makes it problematic.

    Without creating more teams, the league owners have to maximize what it has to increase revenue. If the NFL could get a billion dollar TV deal from a team in London or Berlin, plus lots of ticket revenue and jersey sales–that would surely overwhelm what they get out of a team in Buffalo (or a lot of its other teams).

    For me and many of you–the NFL makes plenty of money already and an older generation of owners probably would be more risk averse. Some, though (i.e. J. Jones) seem to want to make a tiered NFL where revenue kings are kings of the league and where every team has to pay its share. They don’t agree with us.

    As for logistical difficulties, etc…a league that doesn’t mind having its older players unable to remember their own names is probably not going to mind putting them on a flight for 6-8 hours for a game. Just a matter of getting the right price.

  15. Which is to say that I believe “competitiveness” is a fake concern. Of course the Bills could “compete” (assuming that they could, as they had in the 1990s, find the right people to run the team). What NFL owners in particular want is an excuse to move the team, which is why (as others have pointed out), that the exact opposite of the reasons to move the Rams (small parking lots) are cited as a reason to blow up Rich Stadium (lots of parking lots).

  16. “The St. Louis situation demonstrates that there may be a lack of willingness within emerging NFL owners to maintain the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ mentality of their predecessors.”

    Or, they decided there are limits to what they’re willing to do to “make it work” in a small market.

    Here was the Riverfront Stadium proposal to the Rams/NFL: “Tear up the old lease, sign a new 30-year lease (iron-clad, no escape clauses this time), and split the cost of a new billion-dollar stadium with our taxpayers.” Doesn’t sound too unreasonable on its face, but here’s what it meant in reality: “Forgive nine figures’ worth of obligations we owe under the current lease, give up your relocation leverage basically forever, forgive & forget our track record of refusing to uphold our lease obligations, give us $500 million dollars, and THEN we’ll provide what we already owe you, for $0, through 2025: A first tier venue.”

    In addition to that, you had an owner with the land, money, and a great stadium plan in L.A., a franchise with a 49-year history in L.A., and the oft-forgotten fact that St. Louis fought like hell *against* the NFL to enter that bad lease in the first place. In March 1995, NFL owners voted 21-3 “No” (6 abstain) to the Rams’ relocation to St. Louis. The owners only caved after a month of ugly public accusations and lawsuit threats from the Rams and Missouri politicians, including then-Attorney General Jay Nixon.

    That’s a heck of a lot to forgive, forget, and pass up just to preserve NFL football in the #21 market.

  17. Missouri didn’t “owe” the Rams anything under current lease, because the current lease had ceased to exist. Once Missouri chose not to agree to Kroenke’s (and the arbitrator’s) demands for a “first tier” stadium, everyone was back at square one.

  18. There are a lot of teams nowadays, and only so many markets, so the NFL will end up in some bad ones regardless.

    What is most striking about the Rams case to me is that the owners burned the negotiating position of two long-standing ownership families for an owner (who doesn’t seem to care much about winning in any sport) to allow him to turn his franchise into the spearhead of a real-estate deal.

    If you’re the owner of a team in a small market, you might be worried about how independent you are expected to be.

  19. “There are a lot of teams nowadays, and only so many markets, so the NFL will end up in some bad ones regardless.”

    Let’s be clear that those “bad” markets are fantastically profitable today, just less profitable than some other markets. This isn’t the NHL, where there are actual bad markets where teams actually lose money (objectively trying to get people interested in hockey in Phoenix is not a good business plan). The NFL teams in “bad” markets rake in $30M-$40M a year.

  20. Yes, Neal, I’m aware that a year-to-year lease is all the Rams were owed legally. But relocation approval is per the judgment of the NFL, and Missouri’s argument – “Forget how we got to Square 1, and treat us like anyone else at Square 1” – is like the man who murders his parents, then pleads for a lenient sentence on the basis that he’s an orphan.

  21. How on earth do you get to there? The lease gave Missouri a choice: Agree to keep the Rams’ stadium “top tier,” or let them opt out of the lease. Missouri went with door #2, the Rams opted out, and here we all were. For Kroenke to say, “Thanks for letting me out of the lease, now start by giving me the nine figures you would have owed me if I hadn’t opted out” would be pretty crazy moving the goalposts.

  22. Perhaps this should be fast tracked into law.

  23. Scola,

    I fully agree with you. In a business model where the group of owners cooperate, make a good amount of money, have a chance at winning it all, and enjoy fantastic increases in franchise valuation–there is no “bad market.” That’s what a lot of these teams want.

    However, making 40 million a year on an asset worth 800 million isn’t really a big “return on investment.” And if an increasingly influential group of owners expects teams to make a ton of money through real estate deals, marketing, and the like, or be left out of the fun–there are a lot of NFL cities that aren’t well positioned to take advantage of that. Buffalo is one of them.

  24. Interesting takes on the “competitive” argument here; I hadn’t thought of a lot of them. I always thought it meant that the team could stay competitive because some delicate flower QB or WR doesn’t want to get dressed in a modest dressing room in a 1970s stadium & would rather go to Levi Field where the dressing rooms are surely the size of college basketball courts with individual curved 80″ televisions for all (or whatever other modern wacky technology they can come up with)

  25. Neal, the Rams’ original lease was not dissolved in 2015; it merely changed to year-to-year, and more importantly, the first tier requirement was a *requirement*, and the 2015 lease conversion was a *penalty*. You can make a rational decision to pay a prescribed penalty rather than obey a law or contract, but that’s not really “good faith” or the spirit of the law, is it?

    Bottom line, St. Louis’s position relied on the NFL interpreting everything (history, the lease, the relocation rules etc.) in the most absurdly favorable light for St. Louis, which it had no incentive or desire to do.

  26. Yeah it all seems weird until you remember the truth: we’re just stadium cash whores, nothing more. Except in L.A. where we threw Davis and Spanos under the bus I guess because Stan’s plan’s got . . . Pizzazz! Leverage Angeles? Gone. Who cares, we’ll find a new angle. Move the Bills to Toronto, or London, or Timbuktu. It’s time for a new game.

    Our guy in Buffalo says he’s good? HA! Grubman and the boys in NYC will take a whack at the pols up there regardless. Stadium cash is the name of the game. There’s no rhyme or reason to what we do–we’re billionaire members of the Club of 32, we do whatever the fuck we want! We are absolutely powerful and absolutely corrupt and don’t you forget it. City + Team + Stadium more than 15 years old = here we come after your dough, Joe, lol.

    This 100 year old brandy tastes fine but it’s making me a little light-headed. I was feeling low when we gave up the L.A. con game – Stan really harshed my buzz, but I’m feeling the old feeling again, it won’t be long till there’s something in the wind up in Buffalo methinks, and it will be the pungent smell of public stadium cash in the morning, my all time favorite!

  27. I think Las Vegas is new lure. London is the old fake lure. And Toronto is in there somewhere. It’s annoying enough that these are financed with tax free municipal bonds, Federal funds should not go into any of this.

    I love worst three stadiums comment, there will always be a worst three stadiums somewhere. The shock and horror of it!

  28. “I love worst three stadiums comment, there will always be a worst three stadiums somewhere. The shock and horror of it!”

    So true. Conversely: “top-tier,” “state-of-the-art” etc. If there are ~30 teams, and a venue lasts 30 years on average, a new “top-tier, state-of-the-art” venue will open every year on average. Your venue really can’t be “top-tier” for more than a few years.

    (Neal has written about some of these “state of the art” lease clauses, including one – can’t remember which – that guarantees the landlord provide future technologies including holographic video displays!)

  29. Cincinnati Bengals have the holographic replay clause. That one made it onto John Oliver, if I remember right.

  30. That’s hilarious, but unfortunately, it’s also part of the problem with press coverage of these leases. Specific descriptions of future obligations get attention and ridicule. Vague, open-ended obligations, which are far more attention-worthy, often do not.

    From the “first-tier” portion of the Rams’ January 1995 lease (emphasis mine): “It is acknowledged and agreed by the parties hereto that to meet this First Tier standard at such times may require upgrades, alterations, additions and improvements, including WITHOUT LIMITATION additional construction to the Facilities, any or all of the Components and any or all part( s) thereof … ”

    And this went unnoticed by the press until about a year later. Had there been, say, a $150 million limit attached to this first-tier obligation, I am convinced it would have been noticed and reported on. (And people would have been outraged!) But perversely, because the obligation was literally unlimited, it went unnoticed.

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