Taxpayers are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the Bills in Buffalo. And within the decade, they'll probably have to pony up again
The Buffalo Bills got everything they wanted in the new lease deal they signed in December, and they'll likely get a whole lot more in the near future.
Under the deal's terms, the Bills will receive what has become commonplace for teams demanding new or improved facilities: hefty public financing. While most such deals represent long-term investments by local governments, a provision in the Bills' lease could leave taxpayers shelling out big-time for just seven more years of football. And even if Buffalo retains the Bills after that point, taxpayers will likely have to shell out hundreds of millions more to keep their Bills.
The new lease's terms call for $130 million in improvements to 40-year-old Ralph Wilson Stadium. Of that total, the Bills will cover just $35.5 million. New York state and Erie County will pick up the remaining $95.5 million.
The total cost of the deal hits $271 million once operating expenses, like rent and upkeep costs, are factored in. The team is in line to cover just $44 million of that total.
On its face, taxpayers are buying the loyalty of their football team, as the lease binds the Bills to Buffalo for the next decade. Yet the lease also includes a one-time opt-out clause after year seven that will allow the Bills to skip town for a marginal fee. This all but guarantees that within the decade, the Bills will be back with a new list of financial demands, telling the state and county to put up even more money or risk losing the team.
Recent history has shown that states and municipalities are all too willing to spend big to keep pro teams in town. This past year, the Miami Marlins inaugurated their new stadium, which was made possible through $409 million in public bonds issued by Miami-Dade County. Just a few years ago, both the New York Yankees and Mets got new stadiums, and taxpayers ponied up nearly $2 billion to make it happen.
Public funding for new stadiums has become as commonplace in the NFL as it has in other sports. Since 2000, public funding for new football stadiums has routinely covered two-thirds or more of the total project cost. In one of the more extreme instances, taxpayers in Marion County, home of the Indianapolis Colts, paid for 86 percent of a $720 million stadium that opened there in 2008.
Relocation, though rare in practice, is often brandished as a potent deal-driver to force states and local governments into bidding wars against each other. For instance, after the Bengals floated relocation in the late 90s, Cincinnati covered 94 percent of the costs to build a new stadium for their home team.
When relocation does become a reality, it is often the result of a suitor city submitting a more generous bid. In one of the most infamous, acrimonious relocations in sports history, the Cleveland Browns left for Baltimore in 1996, and moved into a new $226 million stadium two years later. Maryland covered 90 percent of that stadium's cost.
What's particularly striking about these trends is that studies have repeatedly found that the supposed economic booms that teams claim they'll bring to the local economy don't pan out.
The short duration of the Bills' new lease means that negotiations toward a longer, more costly deal, are about to get under way. In one sense, that debate has already begun. The lease established a split public-private commission to research the logistics of a new facility. And with new state-of-the-art stadiums now topping the $1 billion mark, New York taxpayers could be asked to pay for a major chunk of that, on top of the millions they're already due to pay. Toronto has lobbied hard to bring the NFL to Canada. The Bills, who already play one game every year in Toronto, thus have built-in competition for their services, meaning more leverage come deal time.
New York has already shown its willingness to do whatever is necessary, and to pay whatever is necessary, to keep a team in Buffalo. That puts the Bills in prime position to reap even more public funding in a few short years — whether it be from New York or another place altogether.
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