Buffalo isn't an NFL city anymore.
Oh, sure, it has the Buffalo Bills: a team with a classic-yet-iconic brand identity, a long, rich history full of great teams, legendary wins and Hall-of-Famers. Yes, those Bills have a tantalizing mix of talent and experience on the field, and the most entertaining coaching staff in football on the sidelines. The franchise, of course, is fanatically supported by a city and region with few other major league attractions.
All of these unquestioned positives were acquired by Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula less than two years ago in what commissioner Roger Goodell called, per NFL.com, a "great outcome for Western New York, Bills fans and the NFL."
But none of that trumps the ability to build a palatial, state-of-the-art stadium. If NFL owners get their way, the Pegulas will either have to build in Buffalo or build somewhere else.
"What does it take to make sure that the Bills remain here on a successful basis?" Goodell recently wondered out loud, per ESPN.com's Mike Rodak. "Stadiums are important, just to making sure that the team can continue to compete, not only throughout the NFL but also compete in this environment. Because we've got great facilities here now and the Bills have to stay up with that."
Not long ago, it was perfectly fine for Jerry Jones to build his Dallas Cowboys a billion-dollar football palace while the rest of the league played in multi-use domes, publicly financed arenas or even crowdfunded bowls. Decades of egalitarian revenue-sharing and enforced competitive balance let each owner run their business to fit their resources and community.
But once the 2011 collective bargaining agreement started counting stadium revenue streams towards the salary cap, the game changed: Now that Jerry's got one, everyone's got to get one.
Since then, every new NFL stadium is more ambitious and ostentatious than the last. University of Phoenix Stadium was somehow meant to look like both a barrel cactus and a coiled snake. The new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta is a cross between the Sydney Opera House and a Buckyball. The towering crystal cathedral that is U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota will only be outdone by Stan Kroenke's gargantuan Los Angeles development.
Each new proposal or fly-through video focuses more on the incredible variety of ways corporate clients will be able to eat and drink and rub elbows while adjacent to the game, and less on anything having to do with football. Just look at the renderings of Kroenke's City of Champions complex: In all the shots, the stadium is somewhere in the background of the retail, condos, attractions, etc.
Jones himself passionately believed in Kroenke's vision, per The MMQB's Peter King. In a 21-11 secret-ballot vote that went against their own expansion committee's recommendation, his fellow owners agreed: This is what the future of the NFL should look like.
It doesn't look anything like Buffalo.
"It gets tougher and tougher to compete when all these new stadiums are going up, and [the Bills are] going to be at a disadvantage, I think, somewhat competitively unless they get one," New York Giants owner John Mara told the Buffalo News' Vic Carucci. "We’d all like to see them get a new building."
Western New York simply doesn't have the population or wealth to build a Kroenke-style NFL Disneyland, but the problems go much deeper than that: Even if the region drains its coffers to build a billion-dollar "NFLtainment" complex, nobody will be able to patronize it.
"The key is to realize that we are not LA," team president Russ Brandon told Carucci. "We are not Atlanta. We're not Minneapolis. People say, 'Oh, we're very similar to Minneapolis.' They have 28 Fortune 500 companies in that community. We have zero. We have to be a regional operation. We know that. That's proven."
The current large-capacity stadium and cheap ticket prices draw fans from all over the region—including across the border in Toronto, where the Bills have played home games in recent years. But the Bills can't tax all those out-of-market fans, soak them for PSLs, jack the ticket prices up to LA levels and expect a full building.
Yes, modern NFL stadiums can wring an enormous amount of money out of their fanbases, but only if that money is there to begin with.
Brandon told Sal Maiorana of the Democrat and Chronicle the Bills took a "very holistic approach" to the just-completed $130 million renovation of the stadium, considering the market, prices, available public funds, and deciding a significant face-lift with added fan amenities was just right for Buffalo.
But it was wrong for the NFL.
"I was not for that renovation," a league official anonymously told Carucci. "None of us were." The face-lift not only spent significant monies that could have been used towards a new facility, it makes it that much harder to convince Bills fans a new facility is needed.
For 31 owners with their hands in each others' pockets, a new facility is needed. Every dollar of shared revenue Buffalo, the 51st-ranked television market in the U.S., can't generate is 3.13 cents the other owners aren't getting. All the history, tradition, support and success in the world means nothing to many of today's money-hungry owners if San Antonio will build the stadium Buffalo can't.
As Carucci pointed out, Jones himself said the Pegulas "walked into the room" as a "top five" ownership group. Clearly, Jones believes the Pegulas fit into his grandiose vision for the NFL.
For all their goodwill towards, investment in and promises to the region, the Pegulas spent $1.4 billion on a team that Forbes valued at at just $870 million. You don't pay almost double market value for an asset like that unless you know you're going to significantly raise the value of that asset, and adding a few suites to the Ralph won't make that happen.
"I think they think we need a new stadium," Terry Pegula told WGR (via NFL.com). "That's where they're coming from, so you need to listen to that and you make your own judgment."
We’re in the fact-finding mode. We want to make sure we have all the information that is relative to our community, to our fan base. We’re not Atlanta, so it’s hard for us to say we’re going to build a stadium like Atlanta. We can’t. It’s not just a yes or no, it’s a lot more involved than that. We don’t talk about it now because we don’t have all the answers and we don’t want to get misconstrued because things change."
Everything about the Pegulas' history suggests they're deeply committed to Bills fans and the Buffalo area. There's every reason to believe they'll take their time to exhaust every possibility to keep the Bills competitive in Western New York.
But they didn't pay $1.4 billion to join this club if they didn't want to be a part of it. And with every passing day, the 31 other members count the money they're losing with a franchise stuck in a city that just doesn't fit in today's NFL.