New York's new stadium
You can stop me if you’ve heard the story before. Beloved sports team plays in stadium. Said team decides it wants a new stadium and asks taxpayers to cover its cost. Government officials, elected by those taxpayers, acquiesce and fund a new stadium for fears this beloved team might leave for greener pastures. Stadium is funded and built, crisis averted, fin.
To be clear, in this case I am talking specifically about the Buffalo Bills, the only NFL team that technically plays in the state of New York and the only one that can claim a winning record in recent memory. The bills currently play in a 48-year-old stadium. Of course, stadium years are like dog years, which makes 48 years nearly prehistoric. And that’s why team owners insisted they would not renew their stadium lease. So the state, led by western New Yorker and New York State Governor Kathy Hochul, put together a package where 60% of the $1.4 billion needed to finance a new stadium would be covered by public dollars, about 600 million directly from the state. Which means that those of you living in Dutchess county, you too will be contributing to the Buffalo Bills new facility. Long Island, you as well. That list goes on and on. Additional dollars, 250 million of them, will come from the county, and the remaining 550 comes from private financing, including team owner Terry Pegula who is worth somewhere north of $5 billion. For that, the good people of Western New York will have a brand new stadium for their beloved Bills, who promise not to go anywhere for the next 30 years. And let’s be clear, of all the teams who might be inclined to leave a city, Buffalo stands at the top of that list. Apologies to western New York, but not really.
There’s more to it, including the $400 million the state will kick in for maintenance and upkeep over the course of the stadium lease. And the fact that the Bills will charge fans a fee, known as a Personal Seat License or PSL, for the right to buy season tickets. But in summary, we should know that the state of New York is making sure that one very wealthy family as part of one of the most profitable entertainment properties in the US is able to keep on keepin’ on.
This is in no way unique or outlandish by current standards. In fact, some might suggest that Buffalo could have gotten a better deal, at least compared to places like Las Vegas, which basically opened up the casino to get the Raiders. In general, cities with less inherent staying power – say, Buffalo – are more likely to have to pay up than places with obvious strategic advantages, like Los Angeles or New York City. MetLife Stadium in New Jersey was built without any public subsidies. And SoFi stadium in LA, which cost a staggering $5 billion, was also privately funded. But Orchard Park is a long way from Hollywood – and I’m talking metaphorically – which means that keeping the Bills happy takes a little more, shall we say, convincing.
You can find arguments on either side of this argument if you look hard enough. Most economists will tell you these projects don’t pay off in future dollars unless they’re tied to a more robust city revitalization effort. And that is highly unlikely in a football stadium that’s used 10 times a year, not a multi-purpose arena like the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn that actually anchors the neighborhood some 350 days per. The state will talk about the thousands of union jobs created to build this monstrosity, which may be true. Those same dollars could be used to build road, subways, schools, and God forbid another train tunnel into New Jersey. So I wouldn’t put too much into that mythology.
In the end, it really comes down to whether you believe that sports, and in particular an NFL franchise, adds actual value to the public good. I’m not talking economic value, but psychological and sociological. In other words, is it worth spending lots of public money for a private team for what it does to the well-being of, in this case, the city of Buffalo? That’s the question. What is sport worth? For that, you’ll get a million different answers depending on who you talk with and when. Perhaps we’ll only know the real answer come election day, when Governor Hochul asks those same people what they think. For her sake, hopefully the Bills will be on a winning streak.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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