A long-vacant stretch near Seneca Niagara Casino is being eyed by Niagara County legislators as the team’s next home. They will presumably go helmet-to-helmet with those pushing for a Buffalo waterfront stadium.
To my mind, the new stadium talk should be filed under “fantasy football.” It may be fun to kick around, but I don’t think it has much connection to reality.
The primary argument for a new stadium is to entice the next owner to keep the team here. Unfortunately, the basic premise is flawed. A new ballpark only sufficiently pads an owner’s wallet if there are enough rich folks and big corporations to buy glitzy suites, club seats, overpriced season tickets and advertising, pay licensing fees. Our spirit is willing, but our bank accounts are weak.
The best thing Western New York can do to keep the Bills – whose new lease locks them in here for just seven years – is to inject its limp economy with performance-enhancing drugs and grow or lure a few Fortune 500 companies. A new stadium makes no sense unless we have enough rich folks and corporations to buy tens of millions of dollars of profit-padding luxury seating. Otherwise we cannot compete with a Los Angeles, a Toronto or another metropolis when the Bills are eventually auctioned off.
Ralph Wilson makes a hefty profit, owns the team debt-free and – at age 94 – is not going to relocate the team. That won’t be the case with the next owner, who will not just want to make tons of money, but will likely need to. Even if he can put down, say, half of the Bills’ estimated $900 million value, he will have a massive “mortgage” to pay off. If recent NFL history is any guide, he will also need to kick in on the cost of a new stadium, here or somewhere else.
All of which means he will need to get big bucks from unshared luxury and club seating. He will need to collect hefty seat-licensing fees – generally ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 – from fans for the mere “privilege” of buying season tickets. It means he will need to jack up season ticket prices. It means he will need to gouge local businesses for advertising. All of which does not scream “Buffalo.”
I am not trying to toss hairs into the punch bowl. The Bills, even as perennial losers, are nice to have around. But I think the realities of the current NFL conspire against them staying after Wilson is gone.
Glance at what Jerry Jones pockets in up-market Dallas. According to a Vanderbilt University study, the Cowboys collected $720 million just in seat-licensing fees, which more than covered the team’s share of its new $1.2 billion stadium. An owner will get nowhere near that number in Buffalo. The Bills charge no seat-licensing fee now, and their ticket prices are low, yet they still can’t hit the 50,000 season-ticket mark.
The Cowboys annually rake in $80 million just from suites and club seats. The Bills, conversely, had to huff and puff 15 years ago to sell a mere $11 million in luxury seating. And the region has lost population since then.
Add it up, and an owner potentially pockets tens of millions more a year in a metropolis. I can’t see why he would want a new stadium here, when it’s worth a lot more somewhere else.