One of the most important job responsibilities of any sports commissioner is shaking down cities for new or improved stadiums in situations where it would be too awkward for team owners to make direct threats themselves, which is to say in pretty much all situations. And of all sports commissioners, none has thrown himself into this aspect of the job than the NFL’s Roger Goodell, who has made an emergency flight to Minnesota to threaten the state legislature over the Vikings, tried to get St. Louis to build a new Rams stadium 20 years after the last one, and held out Super Bowls as a carrot for cities that agree to fund new stadiums, among other things.
Goodell has been especially vocal in the case of the Buffalo Bills, declaring in 2014 that a new stadium was necessary to keep the team in Buffalo even though the team was in the process of a sale that required any new owners to keep the team in Buffalo, and then reiterating in 2016 that “we’ve got great facilities here now and the Bills have to stay up with that.” So since it’s been a couple of years, yesterday at a golf tournament he was at it again:
“The reason why I’m supportive is because I want to make sure this franchise remains stable here, and continues, and remains competitive,” Goodell told reporters. “And I think it’s great for this community. And we’ve been able to do these stadiums in such a way that it creates a tremendous economic benefit, too.
“I want the Bills to be successful and I want them to continue to be competitive here in Buffalo.”
That’s a lot of coded arguments all in the span of a few short sentences, so let’s unpack them. Fortunately, it’s easy to do so, since Joanna Cagan and I wrote up pretty much all of these rhetorical moves way back in 1998, in Chapter Four of the very first edition of Field of Schemes:
- “I want to make sure this franchise remains stable here, and continues.” This is the non-threat threat, as practiced by league commissioners since time immemorial, and sometimes even lesser league officials: In 1996, now all-but-forgotten National League president Leonard Coleman warned during Astros stadium talks that “We want to do all we can to first keep a team in Houston,” which turned out to be mostly Houston taxpayers doing something, as the public covered $180 million worth of stadium and private owners covered only $85 million.
- “And remains competitive.” This is leveling the playing field, the argument that teams without new stadiums invariably lose — whether lose games or lose money or what is usually not made clear. In another book I established that there’s very little correlation between new stadiums and teams winning ballgames in MLB (new stadiums turned out to be worth about 5.5 wins per year in their first five seasons, most likely due to team owners spending more on players now that they could have the hope of selling more expensive tickets to see them play), and in the NFL, where pretty much every team has similar revenues and expenses thanks to shared TV money and the salary cap, it’s an even sillier notion that new homes lead to more wins.
- “I think it’s great for this community.” This is the intangibles argument, where you note that it’s impossible to put a price on having a sports team to root for. Except that when economists have attempted to put a price on that very thing, they’ve found that it’s worth a lot less to residents than the cost of a new stadium or arena.
- “We’ve been able to do these stadiums in such a way that it creates a tremendous economic benefit, too.” This is playing the numbers, and don’t even get me started.
The amusing thing about the Bills situation — or the alarming one, depending on how you look at it — is that team owners Kim and Terry Pegula seem lukewarm at best on demanding a new stadium, saying one would be nice and all, but they’re really pricey to build and tickets at them are expensive and maybe let’s all talk about it another time. Goodell, though, has only one setting, and that’s maximum shakedown mode, even when being interviewed at a golf tee. Guess he’s gotta make the other NFL owners feel like he’s earning that $40 million annual salary somehow