Bills strike deal for stadium lease
Agreement expected to include millions of dollars in renovations to nearly 40-year-old facility
The Buffalo Bills aren't going anywhere any time soon, and the team's CEO, Russ Brandon, guaranteed it Friday.
"Guaranteed," Brandon said at a hastily called news conference, announcing the Bills had agreed to sign a new 10-year lease with the state and county to continue playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"This is a monumental day for us," he added. "The Buffalo Bills are right here in western New York, where we're going to be for many decades to come."
It's a $271 million US deal, of which $130 million will be committed to upgrading an aging stadium that opened in 1973. And the agreement includes a commitment to put aside funds and establish an advisory group to explore the potential of building a new stadium for the franchise.
Just as important, the agreement includes a provision that essentially locks the Bills in for the next seven seasons. The franchise would have to pay $400 million if it decides to leave before 2020. The team then has the option of buying out the remaining three years of the lease for $28 million.
"This is an investment that the state is making. It's an investment in the Bills. It's an investment in western New York. And I'm proud to make that investment," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, speaking via a satellite television hookup from New York City because stormy weather prevented him from flying upstate.
A memorandum of understanding with the terms of the agreement was signed Friday, with the actual lease still to be finalized. It's subject to review by the NFL and during budgeting by the state and Erie County.
The deal was reached before the Bills' existing 15-year lease expires at the end of July. And the price tag for renovations is significantly lower than the $200 million Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz projected it would be when talks first began last spring.
State, taxpayers on hook
In a breakdown of costs provided by officials, state and county taxpayers are on the hook for $226.8 million for the duration of the lease. That includes a series of annual payments for annual capital and game-day expenses.
Of that total, the state and county are committed to making a one-time payment of $94.5 million next year for stadium upgrades, which will include getting new scoreboards, widening concourses and building a new plaza. The Bills' share for those upgrades will be $35.455 million.
"Those that would criticize the state and Erie County for investing taxpayer money to keep the Bills here would be the same ones criticizing if the Bills left," Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy said. "If we were to lose them, that would be a shot into the morale of this community and this state that could not be understated."
The deal comes at a time when fears were again being raised about the long-term stability of a team based in the United States' 56th largest television market, and in a Rust Belt region.
The Bills often have been mentioned as being a target for relocation. Another issue is the status of the team's Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson, who turned 94 in October and whose health is slipping.
Wilson spent about a week in the hospital in late August because of an undisclosed illness.
Though committed to keeping the Bills in Buffalo during his lifetime, Wilson has not made any commitments regarding the team following his death. He has made it clear that he intends to have his heirs sell the franchise, opening the possibility of the team being purchased by someone interested in relocating the team.
Brandon said Wilson's loyalty to Buffalo has never wavered, and he took offence when asked what might happen to the franchise once Wilson dies.
"The question becomes tiresome. I understand it, but it's become tiresome," Brandon said. "Mr. Wilson's loyalty is unmatched as any owner in professional sports. And I think we should be here today to applaud him."
Wilson was not present for the announcement. He hasn't made a public appearance since attending the Hall of Fame induction ceremony festivities in Canton, Ohio, in early August.
Brandon previously dismissed discussions of the Bills' need for a new stadium, saying the team was committed to continuing to play at its current home.
He's now open to the possibility of a new venue.
"We're going to look at the potential of a new stadium in the next decade or so, and see if it makes sense for our community," Brandon said.
With the New York Giants and Jets both playing in New Jersey, the Bills are the NFL's only team based in New York. It's estimated that the state annually earns $20 million in taxes from the Bills.
"This is a forward-looking agreement that thinks about not just today," Poloncarz said. "But it's also forward-looking so that we do what's necessary so that at the end of this 10-year period, we're not just wondering, 'What do we do now?"'
The agreement includes a clause limiting the Bills to playing one annual home game and a pre-season game once every two years in Toronto. That's similar to the five-year agreement between the Bills and Toronto-based Rogers Communications to have the team play north of the border.
The two sides have been in negotiations and are close to renewing the agreement.