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NFL approves new Buffalo Bills stadium funding plan

Ralph Wilson Stadium

NFL owners approved a $1.4-billion new Buffalo Bills stadium funding plan that includes $850 million in public funding and $550 million from the NFL and team owners Terry and Kim Pegula.

The new stadium will be built next to the team’s practice facility and current home, Highmark Stadium, in suburban Orchard Park, N.Y. The new open-air stadium is expected to hold 65,000-67,000 fans: 60,000-62,000 seats along with a 5,000-capacity SRO party deck. (Yes, personal seat licenses will be part of the deal), less than the current Highmark Stadium, and incorporate a design from Populous that will provide more protection from the cold-weather elements–upwards of 80 percent of the capacity sheltered in some manner. It will also be a multiuse stadium with a grass turf, supporting soccer as well as a slew of events throughout the year. It is expected to open in the 2026 NFL season; as part of the deal the Bills will sign a lease extension for Highmark Stadium.

“We took another step today to solidify our collective goal of constructing a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park,” said Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula via press statement. “We are grateful for the time, efforts and unwavering commitment made by Governor Hochul and her team throughout this process. While there are a few more yards to go before we cross the goal line, we feel our public-private partnership between New York State, Erie County led by County Executive Mark Poloncarz, and the National Football League will get us there.”

Of the $850 million in public construction funding, $600 million will come from New York State and $250 million from Erie County. (That’s a total of 60.7 percent in public financing. Still, $850 million will be the most in public money spent on a sporting facility, exceeding the $750 million in public money spent on Las Vegas’s Allegiant Stadium.) In announcing the new stadium, elected officials said the public portion of the funding would pay for itself with increased tax receipts and economic impacts. Erie County will transfer ownership of the current stadium and adjoining complex, which includes practice facilities and office space, to the State. The State will own the new stadium and adjoining complex, which will be leased to the Bills. The NFL’s contribution is $200 million via a G4 loan, which is paid back through the visiting-team Bills ticket revenue over 25 years, up to $150 million. The Pegulas will be on the hook for $350 million for construction, and $50 million in repayment of the G4 loan. The team will also be responsible for any cost overruns.

“I went into these negotiations trying to answer three questions–how long can we keep the Bills in Buffalo, how can we make sure this project benefits the hard-working men and women of Western New York and how can we get the best deal for taxpayers?” N.Y. Governor Kathy Hochul said via press statement“I’m pleased that after months of negotiations, we’ve come out with the best answers possible–the Bills will stay in Buffalo for another 30 years, the project will create 10,000 union jobs and New Yorkers can rest assured that their investment will be recouped by the economic activity the team generates.”

That number derives from this formula: the team currently generates an estimated $27 million annually in direct income, sales and use taxes for New York State, Erie County and Buffalo. These revenues will grow and will cumulatively amount to more than $1.6 billion over the 30-year lease period. Those numbers will surely be examined closely in coming weeks; both the county and the state legislature needs to sign off on the funding plan.

“We are pleased with the tremendous progress that has been made on a plan that will provide Bills fans the world-class facility they deserve in western New York,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell via press release. We appreciate the extraordinary leadership and partnership of Governor Hochul, Senator Schumer, and Erie County Executive Poloncarz. We will continue to work closely with them and the Pegulas to make this exciting vision a reality. The Pegulas have continued to demonstrate their commitment to Buffalo, a market that has supported the NFL for generations. This new stadium will further provide the foundation to help the Bills remain competitive in western New York for decades to come.”  

The decision to build a new stadium in Orchard Park and not in downtown Buffalo, however, seems to be something of a missed opportunity. Nowhere in all the press releases was there talk of any potential spinoff economic opportunity related to a new stadium, which bucks the current trend in the NFL to position new stadiums as the basis for additional economic activity. In Orchard Park, you’ll see the traditional model of a stadium surrounded by a sea of parking, land that utilized 20-30 times a year between games and special events. Los Angeles’s SoFi Stadium, Las Vegas’s Allegiant Stadium and Minneapolis’s U.S. Bank Stadium were built as anchors of additional development, whether it be the office and performing-arts spaces next to SoFi Stadium or the sea of new housing and office space now found in downtown Minneapolis. Pegula Sports and Entertainment officials say that the idea of a downtown stadium polled poorly among fans. No surprise: downtown stadiums never poll well because current fans are stuck in their current game-day rituals: fighting traffic for a downtown parking spot is never popular.

That is, before the new facility opens, and all of a sudden the benefits of the new downtown facility dazzles the former opponents.

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