At 4:05p.m. last Sunday the Buffalo Bills played in their 50th home opener. Just over four hours later, the Dallas Cowboys signaled the beginning of the end.
America’s Team had a home opener of its own, and on NBC’s Sunday Night Football they unveiled a $1.3 billion facility that makes Ralph Wilson Stadium look like a McDonalds PlayPlace.
New Cowboys Stadium has a retractable roof, the world’s largest HD video board hanging above the field, and room for 110,000 of your closest friends. NBC compared Romo’s new digs to the Taj Mahal and The Great Pyramids of Egypt. The hyperbole was minimal.
Sunday night was a celebration of all things extravagant. Cowboys Stadium has luxury boxes at field level, a lounge next to the players’ tunnel, and go-go dancers to entertain fans in the upper deck. Not even a last-second loss and NBC cameras catching Jerry Jones picking a booger in HD can take away from the splendor of the evening.
The Cowboys now have the premier venue in the NFL, and probably in the country. Where certain stadiums are known for its awesome scoreboard (Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City), its unique charm (Fenway Park, Boston) or even its history (Soldier Field, Chicago); Cowboys Stadium will be known for being the very pinnacle of stadiums. It’s the biggest, the best, the most expensive and, most important of all, the best revenue-generator.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is the pioneer of in-stadium ads, naming rights, and is on the cutting edge of luxury suite design. Simply put, the man knows how to squeeze every dollar of revenue out of his football team, and the bottom line shows it. I’m guessing the only reason his new palace isn’t carrying a corporate sponsor on the marquee is because he’s holding out for more money, and I certainly can’t blame him.
If Dallas is on the one end of the stadium parabola, Buffalo clearly resides on the other. The Bills rely on revenue sharing and need the salary cap to stay competitive, and their stadium is anything but new. While “The Ralph” was one of the first stadiums to be named after a corporation when it opened as “Rich Stadium,” that deal has long since expired and had nowhere near the value today’s naming rights demand.
The fact of the matter is that Ralph Wilson Stadium is old. Stadium design in 1973 was much different than it is today. In fact, the “state of the art” renovations Erie County paid for are now over a decade old. Luxury suites and sponsorships are limited, and there’s not a go-go dancer in sight.
Attendance is still strong, especially for a region with a dwindling population. However that’s not what makes the NFL go anymore. In a league that measures revenues in the billions; most profits are not taken from the gate but rather in television deals, licensing agreements, and corporate sponsorships. The revenue just one luxury suite generates is astronomical, and these days they matter more than how many sections in the upper deck get filled.
The 1998 renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium attempted to address those concerns, but the building just isn’t designed with luxury in mind. The Bills have squeezed everything they can out of the place, but their problems have as much to do with the area as they do the stadium.
There’s a reason they’ve reached out to Toronto with their recent marketing, and it’s not because they want to attract a different kind of fan. Canada’s largest city offers the Bills a market filled with millions and millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship that Western New York simply can’t provide. Ralph may be old and slightly crazy, but he’s certainly not stupid. The “Bills in Toronto” series is as much about putting on a show for Toronto “football fans” as much as it is a giant sales pitch for corporate Toronto.
Buffalo is trying to do what football teams can so easily accomplish in places like New York, Dallas, and Chicago: make a boatload of money. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what’s troubling is that it all starts with the place you play your games. A team is nothing without a home, and big market teams have big time houses.
Chicago got theirs a few years ago, gutting the historic Soldier Field and putting hundreds of millions of dollars into it. It feels brand new because it is, and it still has the famous façade to boot.
Next year the Jets and Giants open their new behemoth, complete with personal seat licenses and all the luxury boxes a metro region of almost 19 million can fill. It might not top “Jerryworld” in Arlington, but it will crack the top five for sure.
So when does Buffalo catch up with the rest of the league? Well… it doesn’t. If there’s anything that will doom the Bills in Buffalo, it will be their venue. It won’t be a lack of fan support or history or even bad teams, but a lack funds necessary to provide a new home.
Gone are the days of stadiums built on the government’s dime. The model George W. Bush established when Texas opened the Ballpark at Arlington in 1994 will never be seen again. The City of Arlington and State of Texas paid a huge price to open the stadium, with Taxpayers covered a whopping 84% of the $191 million price tag. It’s a model that set the standard for tax-funded stadiums in the 90s and early 2000s, but now that deal is ancient history.
No sane governing body can justify even 3/4 the cost of a new stadium, let alone the amount Arlington did. Neither the State of New York or the City of Buffalo will want to foot the majority of the bill, and Erie County has already paid their dues back in 1998. Heck, if the Jets couldn’t get $300 million for a stadium that could host the Olympics, Buffalo’s not getting anything close for the Bills.
The cost of stadiums continue to rise, and whoever owns the Bills next won’t have the scratch to build a stadium on their own. Well, at least not around here. After all, who’s going to fill all those luxury suites and sponsor the on-site steakhouse that’s absolutely necessary these days? Who will pay $90 to park in lots that open only a few hours before kickoff, killing any chance for the tailgate parties that make Buffalo famous.
Ralph Wilson Stadium has one of the best fan experiences in the league, but clearly it has an expiration date. Bills fans can only hope that date isn’t soon, but I think it’s coming much faster than we’d like. If and when the Bills leave Buffalo will be because of where they call home, no matter who’s in charge when they call in the moving trucks.