The center of the National Football League universe will soon shift to Buffalo, as buyers interested in purchasing the Buffalo Bills franchise move beyond speculative talk and into the serious business of putting money on the table.
They’ll need a big table. The Bills’ new owner will likely have to come up with at least $1 billion. The average NFL team is worth $1.17 billion, according to a 2013 Forbes analysis. The magazine valued the Bills at $870 million, 30th out of 32 NFL teams. (The Dallas Cowboys topped the list with a value of $2.3 billion.)
The family of Bills founder Ralph Wilson, who passed away in March, hopes to strike a deal with a new owner by mid-summer.
Among those reportedly interested in buying the Bills are Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, billionaire businessman and former Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano, real estate mogul Donald Trump and rock star Jon Bon Jovi, who is working with Toronto sports magnate Larry Tannenbaum.
Once a deal is struck and the NFL approves, the new owner will have to deal with the expensive – and politically sensitive – issue of a new stadium.
Ralph Wilson Stadium, which opened in 1973, is currently undergoing a $130 million renovation, $90 million of which is coming from New York State. But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants more. He told ESPN that without a new stadium, the Bills might leave.
Buffalo may want to borrow Indianapolis’ playbook for building Lucas Oil Stadium, which opened in August 2008. In preparing to build a new home for the Indianapolis Colts, city planners focused on a downtown stadium construction model designed to complement Indianapolis’ economic development agenda, which included making the city a national sports mecca.
Construction costs were about $720 million, with the bulk of the money coming from the state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis; the Colts kicked in $100 million. Lucas Oil, owned by Indiana native Forrest Lucas, purchased the naming rights in 2006 for $121 million over 20 years.
The stadium features expandable seating capacity and a retractable roof that allows games to be played in all weather conditions, two major factors in attracting mega-events such as the Super Bowl and the tourism dollars that come with the tens of thousands of people traveling to them.
Indianapolis has already hosted the NCAA Men’s Basketball Regional Finals (2009, 2013, 2014), the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four (2010) and Super Bowl XLVI (2012). The Big 10 Conference college football championship game will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium through 2021, the NCAA Men’s Final Four returns next year and the Women’s NCAA Final Four will be there the year after.
If Buffalo goes the new stadium route, the facility must have a roof that will enable it to operate year-round and attract similar events. That will allow the city and the state, which is pumping $1 billion into the Western New York region to attract businesses and create jobs, to maximize the return on any stadium investment.
A new stadium would create thousands of construction and permanent jobs in and around Buffalo. The team’s new owner will have to work closely with city officials and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to find a way to pay for either option without saddling Western New York with more debt. On this front, the state has some negotiating room.
According to the consulting firm Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, several NFL teams have covered at least 63 percent of the total cost of building a new stadium, including the New England Patriots (Gillette Stadium), Detroit Lions (Ford Field), Philadelphia Eagles (Lincoln Field) and Dallas Cowboys (AT&T Stadium).
The Buffalo Bills have a long, proud history and a fan base that has remained loyal through the years. The next owner should understand the unique character of the city and commit to creating a sports infrastructure – team and stadium – that supports regional economic development and returns the Bills and Buffalo to their glory days.
Anthony M. Figliola is an economic-development specialist. He is vice president of Empire Government Strategies, a government relations firm based in Uniondale.