The NFL is stepping up its push for a new stadium in Western New York to host the Buffalo Bills, which league officials say is necessary to provide fans a better experience and to give the team and the league a shot of new revenue.
The latest push comes from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. In a conversation last week with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and in other recent talks with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Goodell reiterated his contention that the NFL would like to see the Bills remain in Buffalo.
But a new stadium must be part of the mix, Goodell told them.
While little else is known about Goodell’s comments to the two politicians, NFL officials say Ralph Wilson Stadium – even after the $130 million in renovations being completed this year – will not measure up to the fan amenities offered by new NFL stadiums or even fully renovated ones such as those in Kansas City, Mo., and Green Bay, Wis.
Goodell promoted the idea of a new Buffalo stadium again last week in a private phone call with Cuomo, according to a source with knowledge of the Bills who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation surrounding the sale of the team.
The conversation came a day after The Buffalo News printed a letter from musician Jon Bon Jovi, who fronts a Toronto group that has put in a bid to buy the Bills from the estate of their late founder, Ralph C. Wilson Jr.
In the letter, Bon Jovi insisted that his group does not intend to move the team to Toronto, but stressed that it would like a new stadium in the Buffalo area. He did not say in the letter who would pay for the stadium.
“Bon Jovi really is an explicit articulation of the NFL’s position, with a more definitive tone,” the source said. “Bon Jovi says: ‘I will stay if you build a stadium, and the suggestion is the inverse, I will leave if you don’t build a stadium.’ ”
“The NFL never put it that harshly,” said the source, who detected what seems like an implied threat of a move in the commissioner’s insistent demand that the Bills need a new facility.
And then at an event in Niagara Falls on Friday, Cuomo said: “I want to do everything that we need to do to keep the Bills, but I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, either. If we need a new stadium to keep the Bills here long-term, that’s something I’m interested in talking about. But we’re not there yet, right?”
But he reiterated the downside of building a new facility.
“I’m also very mindful of the money,” Cuomo said. “I’m a little cheap. And stadiums are a lot of money, so we want to be careful, and if we have to go down that road, I want to make sure everyone is participating so it’s as light a burden on the county and the state as it can be.”
There is no question that a new stadium would be a heavy burden. Levi’s Stadium, the new home of the San Francisco 49ers, which opens this year, cost $1.2 billion. And the cheapest such facility to be built in the last decade, the Arizona Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium, cost $455 million when it was built in 2006.
Some teams have been able to get away with a vastly renovated facility. Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, which opened in 1972, a year earlier than the Ralph, underwent a $375 million renovation in 2010 that created new, much wider concourses that offer far more room for concessions and other amenities.
NFL officials said they have not ruled out an extensive renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium, but they added that such improvements – which involve essentially expanding a stadium’s footprint to accommodate all the new amenities – usually won’t work well.
League officials also note that the Bills need the new revenue a new stadium would generate to remain competitive with other NFL franchises.
New stadiums offer a host of opportunities for teams to extract more money from their loyal followers, starting with higher ticket prices.
“Usually it goes up a lot for the really nice seats,” said Jason A. Winfree, a sports economist at the University of Idaho.
NFL team owners have a strong incentive to boost gate revenue because, like the league’s television proceeds, it’s shared league-wide.
“They want a new stadium for Buffalo because it’s more money for them,” Winfree said of the team owners.
Team owners, meanwhile, want new stadiums because they mean much more income from luxury suite fees, concessions, parking and sponsorships – money that is not shared with other NFL owners, said John Vrooman, a sports economist at Vanderbilt University who has studied NFL finances.
The NFL is so eager to make sure all its teams have state-of-the-art facilities that the league offers financing packages of up to $200 million.
What’s unknown, though, is what the Bills’ potential new owners are thinking about a new stadium.
The Buffalo News reported Thursday that as many as eight bidders are slated to appear before the trust selling the team or its representatives in the coming three weeks. Known bidders include Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, real estate developer Donald Trump, Bon Jovi and his bidding partners from Toronto, and former Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano.
Initial bids were supposedly due by July 29, but that deadline has been extended.
“The family is still seeking the most money, so they’re still bringing people to the table,” said the same source who had knowledge of the Goodell-Cuomo conversation. “From the family’s point of view, they want the highest bid. New stadium, old stadium, change uniform colors, who cares? They want the highest bid. Then the NFL puts on other conditions, like, ‘We’d like a new stadium.’ ”
That source added: “But I don’t know if the NFL owners who will sit there and vote will vote against the highest bid for the family, because they all see themselves in that position one day, and they’re going to want their families to get the maximum amount for their teams someday.”
How does the trust’s interest in getting the highest bid work if that high bidder doesn’t insist upon a stadium to stay in Western New York?
“I don’t think anybody knows yet,” the source said.
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