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The Challenges of the Buffalo Bills Stadium Situation

New Era Field

A study of the Buffalo Bills’ stadium options continues, with aim of bringing clarity to perhaps the most challenging facility situation in the NFL.

The Bills currently play at New Era Field, a stadium in suburban Old Orchard Park that originally opened in 1973. It has received some upgrades over the years—including a $130-million renovation mostly completed at the beginning of the 2014 season—but that has not been enough to prevent it from becoming one of the most dated facilities in the league. With the Bills’ lease expiring in 2023, owner Pegula Sports and Entertainment (PSE) announced in November that CAA Icon would conduct a study on the franchise’s long-term options.

Work on that study continues, with results expected this summer. PSE has maintained that it will not begin discussions of a new stadium or New Era Field renovation until it is complete. That has not stopped speculation about what it will decide, however, especially after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell signaled his support for a new stadium earlier this week.

From the NFL’s perspective, a new stadium could certainly yield advantages. A new stadium would result in a stronger revenue windfall for the Bills, particularly if it maximizes or completely opens up revenue sources that otherwise would not have had as much of an effect on the franchise’s bottom line at a renovated New Era Field.

In some respects, it would not be surprising to see a new stadium emerge as a preferred option for the Bills. New Era Field is one of the oldest stadiums in the NFL—the sixth-oldest now, slated to become the fourth-oldest next season—but not necessarily one of its most historic, and past upgrades have not been enough to prevent questions about its long-term future. PSE may also be able to make an argument that building a new stadium in or closer to downtown Buffalo would have a stronger economic benefit for the region, particularly if tied to a larger development initiative.

Thus far, however, there have been plenty of reasons to question whether a new stadium is financially feasible. Buffalo is one of the smallest markets in the NFL, and Bills co-owner Kim Pegula raised questions even before the study was announced about whether financing for a new stadium is possible. Thus far, neither the City of Buffalo nor Erie County—which owns New Era Field—has shown interest in contributing substantial public funds to a stadium, while PSE has yet to give any signs that it would pursue a new stadium with largely private financing.

Given those variables, there are two paths that stadium discussions will likely take in Buffalo. The Bills could pursue a new stadium but seek to lower costs by planning it to scale smaller than some of the NFL’s most elaborate facilities, such as the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium or the upcoming Los Angeles stadium for the Rams and Chargers. This would be a wise path if a new stadium is the desired option, given that Buffalo is unlikely to compete for events such as the Super Bowl that the Dallas and Los Angeles markets regularly pursue. In fact, Bills co-owner Terry Pegula has already suggested a “scaled-down” take would be the likely option in any new stadium discussions, but has not provided any firm details on what that could entail in terms of cost or amenities.

The other option would be to keep the Bills at New Era Field, seeking to modernize the facility enough that it is a sustainable home for the franchise going forward. Any renovation would likely change the stadium from top to bottom, focusing on player facilities, revenue-generating premium areas, other unique seating options, and more. Expect costs in that case to run in the hundreds of millions of dollars—Lambeau Field has required hundreds of millions in investment to keep up with modern NFL venues, and Arrowhead Stadium renovations completed in 2010 cost $375 million. Therefore, any renovation will likely require serious contemplation by PSE and Erie County on whether the investment will be enough to keep New Era Field competitive with other NFL stadiums, and if it will be the most cost-effective option over the long run.

Clearly, the Bills stadium situation has been a challenging one thus far and still has many unanswered questions. The upcoming study could provide the franchise with a path forward but expect plenty of discussion after it is released about whether the Bills are better off building a new stadium or planning a major renovation to New Era Field.

Image of New Era Field courtesy Buffalo Bills.

This article first appeared in the weekly Football Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Football Stadium Digest newsletter.

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August Publications