The Bills Stadium Deal Is Both Indefensible and Understandable

Photo: Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

Even by the low standards of publicly funded stadium boondoggles, the deal to build the Buffalo Bills a new home is terrible. The team’s new $1.4 billion venue, to be constructed adjacent to the current Highmark Stadium, will cost state taxpayers $850 million, the largest-ever public expenditure for an NFL stadium. And the agreement to get this done — negotiated by New York governor Kathy Hochul (a Buffalo native), county officials, and Bills owners — flies in the face of every prevailing trend in stadium financing.

The Los Angeles Rams built their spiffy new stadium, the most recent to open in the NFL, with exactly zero public financing. The Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas was 38 percent publicly financed; the Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium 14 percent; the Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium 45 percent; and the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium 9 percent. MetLife Stadium in New Jersey? Zero percent. Buffalo’s future home? 60 percent. That’s the highest percentage since Lucas Oil Stadium, which was 86 percent funded by Indiana taxpayers, opened back in 2008.

What’s fascinating is how weakly even the stadium’s boosters are defending this thing. Hochul has said it will “create 10,000 construction jobs,” which is a long way from promising it will pay for itself. The state did a study, quoted in the governor’s press release about the deal, finding that the Bills “generate $27 million annually in direct income, sales, and use taxes for New York State, Erie County, and Buffalo.” Hochul’s office claims that number “will grow and will cumulatively amount to more than $1.6 billion over the 30-year lease period.” I’m pretty sure that math doesn’t even remotely check out. On my podcast, The Long Game With LZ & Leitch, LZ Granderson and I talked with New York state senator Sean Ryan, who represents Buffalo. He was forthright in pointing out the deal’s many flaws. “There’s no real economic development out of this,” he said, a fact borne out by ample evidence that public financing rarely provides much economic benefit to the communities footing the bill. “I mean, I guess every time an NFL team plays in Buffalo, those players and those coaches all pay state income tax. So we might get to a break-even.” But even that result would be unusual, Ryan said, adding that “you don’t usually make a $600 million investment to get you to a break-even.”

Yet Ryan voted to approve the plan, which was folded into the New York State budget this week, as did most of his colleagues. And just about everyone I know in Buffalo isn’t just relieved — they’re ecstatic.

Sports are big business, obviously. The NFL projects $25 billion in revenue by 2027, which would make it three times as big as, say, News Corp. But the reason sports make money at all, considering they provide no essential service — they don’t cook food or farm the land or mass-produce hybrid cars or anything — is that people care about them. We assign them a value that goes beyond money. If sports were a zero-sum industry, they would go out of business because we don’t actually need them. They are, by definition, luxury items.

And those luxury items are inextricably tied to our collective identity, particularly in smaller communities like Buffalo. The economic struggles there are well documented. The median income of a Buffalo resident is nearly half the U.S. average; the city has lost half its population since 1960. I have family in Buffalo, and I’ve grown to love the place during my regular visits up there. (Downtown has improved dramatically in just the past five years, and I highly recommend the zoo.) But it is unquestionably still struggling and for the same reasons many other cities like it across the country have struggled in recent decades: the loss of manufacturing jobs, the changing nature of transportation technology, and the migration patterns of the American population. More to the point: If you were to pick a city in the United States to give a football team right now, absolutely no one would pick Buffalo.

Which is to say, if the Bills left Buffalo, that would be all she wrote for NFL football there. And if you argue, not unreasonably, that there shouldn’t be a team there given the city’s recent trajectory, well, I’m gonna bet you don’t have any sort of connection to Buffalo. The Bills are such an inextricable part of the city’s and the region’s (and, Hochul would argue, the state’s) identity that losing them would be devastating — even more from a cultural standpoint than a financial one. “This is the No. 1 fear of every Buffaloan,” Ryan told us. “Losing the team is something you can’t ever fix.”

This was the barrel that the Pegulas — the family that owns the Bills — had the state over. With the lease up on Highmark Stadium, the third-oldest building in the league, they argued that the team needed a new home (one they had no interest in paying for themselves) just to compete with the rest of the moneyed competition. That contention is highly debatable, to say the least, but the Pegulas hold inherent leverage over Buffalo, Erie County, and New York since they could just move the team — to San Antonio, St. Louis, New Jersey, London, or anywhere on earth, really. Cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, and St. Louis have shed teams before and gotten new ones years later, but Buffalo isn’t in that boat. A sweetheart deal was the only way the Bills would stay, and everyone involved knew it.

Even if you don’t care about football, it’s difficult to argue that Buffalo itself wouldn’t be lessened — maybe even left behind — without the team. The Chicago Bears were once based in small Decatur, Illinois. I guarantee if the Bears were still the Decatur Staleys, the town wouldn’t be so anonymous today. The people negotiating this deal barely bothered making a coldly rational case for it because there isn’t one. But sports are only a business for those making money off them. For fans and for communities like Buffalo, they’re worth something much more than that. That’s why the politicians will probably get away with this. That is also why we still cheer and always will.

The Bills Stadium Deal Is Indefensible and Understandable