The speculation has been going on since Terry and Kim Pegula bought the Bills in 2014: What’s the future of Ralph Wilson Stadium?
When the team’s late owner passed away, the facility named for him was 42 years old.
In the seven seasons since, the stadium, now on its fourth name — Rich, “The Ralph,” New Era and Highmark — has undergone a $130 million upgrade. However, now heading into its 49th season, the Orchard Park facility, built in 1973 for a modest $22 million, finds itself No. 4 among the NFL’s oldest facilities, behind only Chicago’s Soldier Field (1924), Green Bay’s Lambeau Field (1957) and Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium (1972), though those three have undergone massive makeovers.
Needless to say, the ever image-conscious National Football League has put some not-so-subtle pressure on the Pegulas to formulate a plan for a new stadium that’s more in keeping with the gaudy palaces that adorn its 29 other cities (Los Angeles and New York have two teams each).
And late last week, it was announced that a pair of firms hired by the Pegulas had completed a second stadium survey, though the story got minimal coverage from Buffalo’s print or broadcast media.
HOWEVER, Mike Catalana from Rochester’s WHAM-TV filled in plenty of blanks that were teased by the stadium-survey press conference in Orchard Park.
He reported that the franchise would not be renovating Highmark Stadium, but rather will build an open-air stadium, presumably on or near the current site and not in downtown Buffalo.
Even without it being a dome, or having a retractable roof, the cost, at very least, would be $1 billion and likely considerably higher.
According to a story by Rochester Democrat & Chronicle Bills beat writer Sal Maiorana, two new NFL facilities that opened last season provide an insight into the investment involved.
“Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas cost $2 billion and was financed by a public-private partnership,” he wrote. “SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles cost $5 billion and was privately financed by Rams owner Stan Kroenke.”
FOR THE RECORD, the Pegulas’ net worth is estimated at a shade under $5.5 billion while the Bills are valued at $1.6 billion, lowest of any NFL team.
No way are they going to self-fund a new stadium. It will likely be a co-op between the owners and Erie County, with likely opposition from at least some taxpayers in the latter.
And there are other factors.
The Bills’ lease with the county ends after the 2023 season and, presuming the new facility is built in the current Highmark location, it would likely take two or three years to construct.
Would the team need a lease extension or temporary home — Toronto’s Rogers Centre or location-challenged Beaver Stadium at Penn State have been suggested — if the new facility isn’t completed until 2025?
To date, neither the Pegulas nor their corporation have commented on the recent report.
HOWEVER, Maiorana did indicate, “it is known that Legends Global Sales – the sports agency co-owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the New York Yankees and investment firm Sixth Street – has already been chosen to sell sponsorships and premium seats for the planned new stadiums in Buffalo and Washington.
“That company recently performed those duties for the Los Angeles and Las Vegas stadiums.”
But a more immediate question is how to finance a new stadium for the Bills … especially how much public funding is needed/expected.
The eight Western New York counties have lost an average of over 3,350 residents combined over each of the last nine years, and the City of Buffalo, which numbered nearly a half million early in the last century is now barely half that (pending the 2020 Census).
In short, this is hardly a growing region.
Indeed the Bills’ home county, Erie, has been losing population every year since 2012 and now is barely 270,000 residents. And while many of them are fans, do they really care enough to fund a stadium that’s home to a member of one of the most successful businesses in the country?
That scenario bears watching.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)