The Buffalo Bills owners want a new stadium, and taxpayers might help them pay for it

The NFL team is a Western New York treasure, and critics say the owners are exploiting that to help pay for the $1.4 billion project.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz have said their No. 1 goal is to keep the Bills in Buffalo.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz have said their No. 1 goal is to keep the Bills in Buffalo. Idibri/Wikipedia

How much do Buffalonians love their professional football team? A lot judging by how fans risk life and limb to show their enthusiasm at Sunday tailgate parties outside Highmark Stadium. One particularly devoted member of the so-called Bills Mafia has even gotten drenched in ketchup and mustard before every game for decades. Many more people have made family traditions of watching games. Some elected officials say the Bills are so important to the Empire State that it is even worth investing somewhere around $1 billion to build them a new stadium in the Buffalo suburbs.

Public support for a proposed $1.4 billion facility could add a lot to the bottom line of the billionaire owners of the team. Terry and Kim Pegula bought the team in 2014 for that same amount after the much-celebrated longtime owner Ralph Wilson died. The team is now worth $2.27 billion with an 11% increase in value over the past year alone. Yet, a recent Forbes analysis shows the franchise remains the least valuable in the NFL. The Western New York city is much smaller than most other places with NFL teams, which limits how the Pegulas can profit from ticket sales, media deals and other partnerships. One way to even the playing field is for Erie County and New York state to pay as much for the new stadium as possible, the Bills owners argue. Otherwise, the team has reportedly threatened to move somewhere else like Austin, Texas. “Right now, the city of Buffalo and the state are going to have to decide if they want a team,” Jim Wilkinson, a spokesperson for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Bills and the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL, said in August. 

A professional sports team shaking down taxpayers for public funding for a stadium is nothing new, but the process is playing out a little differently in Buffalo compared to other cities. Arguments about the economic wisdom of investing public money into a private business have been beside the point as negotiations continue over the new stadium. Elected officials like Gov. Kathy Hochul and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz have said their No. 1 goal is to keep the Bills in Buffalo because of reasons that go beyond optimum returns on public investments. These include an emotional attachment to the team that could ultimately cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. 

“It is something more than money,” Assembly Member Jonathan Rivera of Buffalo said in an interview. “We have an amazing sports history and sports culture here. And cities the size of Buffalo don't often have two professional sports teams … it just goes into the story of what Buffalo is and (how) we punch above our weight class.”

Various media outlets like The Buffalo News have reported that the team wants the public to pay around $1.1 billion for a new stadium, though the exact details have not been made public. Wilkinson has denied the team wanted that amount specifically but would not say if its ask were higher or lower than $1.1 billion. Elected officials from the Buffalo area in any case appear willing to pay a significant chunk of that amount. “It certainly should not be 100%,” Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes told The Buffalo News in August. The exact amount remains matter of negotiation between the team, county and state, who struck a $130 million deal nearly a decade ago to renovate the current stadium. 

The Bills want to build a new stadium on parking lot space they own across the street from the current stadium near the Buffalo suburb of Orchard Park before their lease on the county-owned facility runs out in 2023. A big question surrounding the $1.4 billion project is whether the team even needs a new stadium at all. “The stadium has a lot of problems,” Wilkinson told local TV station WKBW in August. “It’s 50 years old, and an independent engineering study says the upper deck is going to have to be replaced.” He added that repairs to the upper deck, plumbing, electrical systems and other parts of the stadium add up to about $1 billion. 

There was one neighborhood bar across the street before the stadium was built, and you fast forward two decades and there's one neighborhood bar across the street.
– state Sen. Sean Ryan of Buffalo

A feasibility report commissioned by the team three years ago assessed conditions at Highmark Stadium and potential options for a new stadium and has guided the team’s approach to negotiations, the Investigative Post reported. The public release of that report could shine light on why or whether  a $1.4 billion stadium is necessary. The only problem is that the team has refused to release it publicly, as have elected officials like Hochul who have access to it. They have claimed that is because the report concerns a matter of ongoing negotiations, though some independent experts disagree. “There have been FOIL requests made and the request was denied, on the basis that releasing it would impair the ability to get a contract,” said Paul Wolf, an attorney and president of the New York Coalition on Open Government. “I think that's a misapplication of the law. That exemption only applies if there's a competitive process, (but) the only negotiations occurring are between Pegula and government officials” over the new stadium. He argues the report could be withheld if the state and county were dealing with multiple teams who were competing to build a single stadium. A Sept. 14 letter from the good government group to the governor on this point remains unanswered, he added.

The economic arguments against publicly funded football stadiums are well established in academic journals and news reports. They do not create jobs as much as their champions suggest. Their value to economic growth is low compared to the huge amounts of money involved. Then there are the opportunity costs of how Erie County and the state could better invest money for the public good. Every city is different, of course, so what about when it comes to Buffalo? “Every dollar local leaders bet on the Bills rather than investing in core public services comes at a cost to those other long-term opportunities” reads one analysis from the Tax Policy Center.  “Putting taxpayer dollars into higher-return public amenities could benefit Buffalo in ways a taxpayer-funded NFL team can’t.” 

Having an NFL team (or hockey squad for that matter) does keep the city in the news – especially when it comes as close to winning a Super Bowl as the team did last year, but that does not mean elected officials are expecting any type of economic boom from supporting a new stadium. “There's very little economic development to be gained by building a stadium of any sort,” state Sen. Sean Ryan of Buffalo, whose district includes the existing stadium, said in an interview. He said a downtown baseball field is a visible reminder of the lackluster economic growth surrounding stadiums. “There was one neighborhood bar across the street before the stadium was built, and you fast forward two decades and there's one neighborhood bar across the street,” he added. Supporting the Bills 

is evidently about more than money to fans who have stuck with the team in good seasons and bad. Buffalo was once one of the largest and most important cities in the country. While it began losing that status long before the Bills were established in 1959, the presence of professional sports undoubtedly keeps the city in the national conversation, say fans like former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello, who now works as a lobbyist. “Quality of life: Shea’s theater, a Buffalo zoo, the Buffalo Bills, the Buffalo Sabres, all of that creates a quality of life that makes it an attractive place to employers,” he said in an interview. “And then those people generate economic activity, their families, their disposable income … it's hard to capture that in one study.” Assembly Member Pat Burke of Buffalo, whose district includes the stadium, has sponsored a bill that would require more transparency in negotiations over a new stadium, but he remains in support of funding one. It is just a matter of how much, he and a half dozen other local leaders told City & State. The team is a source of pride in the long-suffering Rust Belt city. “It's obviously an emotional investment,” Burke said in an interview. “It's not an economical one.” That creates an opening for the Pegulas whose love for Buffalo is more about dollars and cents. 

I will say right now there's an emotional attachment, but that will not dictate the price tag. But it's real, you know, we love our team.
 – Gov. Kathy Hochul

The billionaire couple won a lot of goodwill when they bought the Bills and Sabres by vowing to do their best to keep the two teams in Western New York despite the economic disadvantages. Locals began referring to downtown – where the Sabres play – as “Pegulaville” and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo even quipped that a statue should be erected in honor of the Pegulas. While there have been rumors of their willingness to relocate the team, they have reportedly taken no concrete actions to do so. They would need the approval of fellow NFL owners – who ultimately have to approve any new plans for a new stadium – to ditch Buffalo anyway, and the NFL is clearly pushing for the Bills to stay where they are. “It’s time to get a new stadium done,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters in August. “We can make sure the Bills are here and successful for many, many decades going forward.” But that all depends on the team, Erie County and the state hashing out a deal. 

A representative for the governor and county executive declined to speak to the points raised by Wolf of the New York Coalition on Open Government about why the two elected officials wouldn’t release the Bills study and why a $1.4 billion stadium is the right way to go with any significant level of public investment. The Giants and Jets did not need that when they built a new facility in New Jersey for example. “The administration’s policy from the beginning has been to not discuss ongoing Bills/stadium negotiations with the media,” Peter Anderson, a spokesperson for Erie County Executive Poloncarz, said in an email. “The ultimate goal is to keep the Bills in Buffalo.” The county executive was in office during the last round of stadium negotiations in 2013 and wrote the book “Beyond the Xs and Os: Keeping the Bills in Buffalo” about his experiences. The details of a stadium deal are complicated, with a range of parties involved that stretch from local businesses to the NFL boardroom, Poloncarz wrote. Whatever he thinks about the economics of the deal, supporting the hometown team is a matter of political preservation. “I knew no matter what I accomplished, my administration would be measured by our ability to successfully complete a new lease transaction with the Buffalo Bills,” he wrote in his book. Representatives of the Buffalo Bills did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

Hochul has deep roots in Western New York as Erie County clerk, a member of Congress and statewide official. She makes a point of showing her loyalty to the team on Sundays. She has also made numerous statements about her support for a new stadium both before and after she became governor in August. Her administration’s refusal to release the report – or directly respond to the issues raised by Wolf in his letter to her – contrasts with recent promises to be fully transparent about the deal, which a spokesperson repeated in an email to City & State. The governor, however, has pushed back at suggestions that her administration was not being fully transparent or that the Bills would not be somehow worth the public investment. How much taxpayer money are the Buffalo Bills really worth? Is it really about something more than money? City & State asked Hochul at a Sept. 15 press conference at the Capitol. “We're still in the fact-finding phase,” she said. “I will say right now there's an emotional attachment, but that will not dictate the price tag or any involvement in the state of New York. But it's real, you know, we love our team.”