The question isn’t where to build a stadium for the Buffalo Bills. It’s why?
The main reason communities build stadiums is to pump up an owner’s profit. It means more luxury suites, more club seats, more local advertisers, more sponsorships and other dollars siphoned directly into an owner’s wallet – all at inflated, new-stadium prices.
The Bills’ current stadium doesn’t suffer from a lack of luxury boxes, club seats or other profit-padding extras. The problem – and this is why a new stadium doesn’t make sense – is the scarcity of deep-pocketed corporations and rich folks around here to buy more of them. It’s not a problem of supply. It’s a problem of demand.
The region does not have the corporate or private wealth to fill many more luxury seats, to scrounge up much more advertising dollars, to unearth additional sponsors. We don’t have a single, home-based Fortune 500 company. We keep bleeding population – the county lost another 30,000 people the past decade. There is a shortage here of companies and fat-walleted fans who will, in a new stadium, pay more for additional luxury suites – current going rate, about $145,000 – and other profit-padding extras.
I don’t want to deflate anybody’s football. But the basic “new stadium” premise is flawed. Accepting it as conventional wisdom doesn’t do anyone much good – not the next owner, not fans, not taxpayers who’d presumably foot much of the bill.
Similar questionable ideas take on a life of their own. Repeated often enough, sketchy concepts can morph into conventional wisdom. Logic-defying ideas – in recent instance, a big-box store on the downtown waterfront – can attain a credibility they don’t deserve. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t think the “new stadium” emperor is wearing any clothes.
I’m not alone.
“With such a small corporate presence in the region, you have to wonder if a new stadium would generate the unshared revenue you see in other cities,” David Carter, a sports business professor and consultant at USC, recently told me. “You don’t want to invest hundreds of millions of dollars, only to find out it’s not workable.”
Vet the proposal, separate wishful thinking from reality, and I don’t think this bird has wings.
“We need to make a rational decision in conjunction with the next owner,” Poloncarz told me. “Everything’s on the table, including further renovation of The Ralph...Maybe the next owner will want a new stadium, but that doesn’t mean it will generate significant new revenue. And I don’t see the county and state splitting a $750 million bill. There will have to be significant private money.”
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good idea for the community to get ahead of this. A stadium commission, including Poloncarz’s people, is weighing new-stadium sites as well as another current-stadium upgrade. The Bills’ playpen is a football-only facility with great sight lines and good “bones” – its structural shelf life extends for another 35 years. A full-bore face-lift would bump up revenue for the next owner, without pricing anybody out of the ballpark. That’s precisely what Kansas City did with a recent $375 million upgrade of Arrowhead Stadium, a facility about the same age as ours.
“I don’t see the compelling reason” for a new stadium, said Ted Fay, a sports management professor at SUNY Cortland. “I think you have to be careful not to overreach.”
The problem goes beyond the marginal benefit for the exorbitant price of a new palace. A new stadium comes with an increased across-the-board cost for fans. Seat licensing fees of at least a thousand dollars are commonly levied for the ‘privilege” of buying season tickets – which will cost significantly more than they do now. Even with prices among the lowest in the league, the Bills’ current season ticket base is an unextraordinary 45,000. I’m not sure how many of those people – much less prospective new buyers – will reach deeper into their pockets for the same product in a new ballpark.
Nor am I sure how far Roger Goodell will carry the ball. As a Jamestown native, many see the NFL commissioner as having Buffalo’s back. Maybe he does.
But Goodell didn’t make $35 million – no, that’s not a misprint – last year by telling owners what to do. He made it by advancing their interests. In terms of shared owner profit, it makes more sense for the league to have a team in a metropolis like Los Angeles or Toronto than in Buffalo.
Not to get conspiratorial, but I can’t dismiss the possibility that Goodell is talking “new stadium” to set a higher bar than Buffalo can reach – and give the league a face-saving “out.”
Either way, I don’t see how a new stadium makes much difference in whether the Bills stay or go. Without the corporate and private dollars to fill the place, it’s just a shiny new shell.