Among the many, many terrible provisions in the Cincinnati Bengals‘ stadium lease (holographic replay systems!) is one that, in the last nine years of the lease, requires Hamilton County to pay for $2.67 million a year of stadium operating costs. County officials have been trying to renegotiate that clause for the past year, and have gotten nowhere, so instead it looks like they’re going to straight-up refuse to make the payment and see what happens next:
Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune told WCPO he has no plans of writing that check to the NFL team.
When asked if the Bengals are aware the county intends to ignore the request for payments, Portune said: “I think they know it’s coming.”
The Hamilton County administrator also did not include the payments in his proposed budget for 2018.
On the face of it, this sounds like a great way to get sued for breach of contract. (Portune says he has an “old opinion from the prosecutor” that the payments are illegal but can’t divulge it because of attorney-client privilege, which, that’s not how attorney-client privilege works, you know that, right, Todd?) But that may not actually be such a bad thing, for several reasons:
- The Bengals’ lease only has nine more years to run, because the terrible, terrible lease only required them to stick around for 26 years rather than the 30 that is more standard in these things. So even if the team sues, and then threatens to move, they’re probably going to do that soon anyway, so might as well save $2.67 million a year in the meantime.
- The rest of the deal, including that infamous state-of-the-art clause that the county has to buy the Bengals anything that other NFL teams get, is only going to get more expensive in coming years, as more NFL teams get other things that the Bengals don’t have. So if you’re going to break the lease, this is as good a time as any.
- There aren’t any cities with newer stadiums out there for the Bengals to threaten to move to, so it would be a multi-year process for them to try to find one and get a stadium deal there, at which point the lease will likely be about to expire anyway.
- Who knows, maybe the county really does have some kind of legal opinion that the lease clause is illegal? Anything is possible.
I don’t actually know if Portune is trying a “break up with the Bengals before they break up with us” gambit, but if so, it’s not a bad one at all. He told WCPO-TV that he’s hoping to start renegotiating a longer-term lease immediately rather than wait until 2026 is nearer, and this will certainly start the ball rolling in the right direction; given other recent lease extension deals, the county is probably looking at some pricey demands from the team owners, but may as well find out now. This is almost certainly going to involve move threats (or at least saber-rattling) from the team, and a huge uproar over which would be worse, Cincinnati losing its NFL team or throwing even more good money after bad on its stadium lease — but as we’ve seen before, you can’t win in the stadium negotiation game without playing hardball, so if that’s what this is, it’s a noble start.