If you don’t build it, they will leave: That’s the threat in Buffalo as the owner of the Bills presses for public subsidies to fund a new stadium for the NFL franchise.
Fracking mogul Terry Pegula, who bought the Bills in 2014, wants state money to help pay for a new $1.4 billion stadium to replace the team’s current dated home. If he doesn’t get it, Pegula has said the team could move.
“Right now, the city of Buffalo and the state are going to have to decide if they want a team”, Pegula Sports and Entertainment spokesman Jim Wilkinson said in August. He declined to comment further to The Post.
But a source who knows the family and has spoken to them in recent weeks tells The Post that the threats are just that — idle threats: The Pegula family isn’t likely to move the Bills, even if they don’t get state or local funding to help build a new 60,000-seat stadium, the source said.
Still, the Pegula family has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in developments for Western New York — they also own the Buffalo Sabres hockey team — and is reluctant to plow more than a billion dollars more of their own money into a new stadium for the Bills.
Pegula has agreed to cover some of the costs of a new stadium, people familiar with the negotiations tell The Post, but he hasn’t given a specific figure, so it’s also not certain what he’s asking for when it comes to state and local funding. The team is negotiating with state politicians, including Buffalo native and new Gov. Kathy Hochul. The negotiations aren’t at an advanced stage, the sources familiar told The Post.
Hochul’s office confirmed negotiations, which a spokesman said were “ongoing.” “Her administration looks forward to sharing details with the public as soon as negotiations are completed,” the spokesman said.
Pegula had tried to start negotiations in 2019 with former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but they never got off the ground, the sources said, leading to what now is a tight deadline.
The deadline looms because the lease at the Bills’ current home just outside Buffalo, Highmark Stadium, expires in July 2023. And building experts have said it needs $1 billion in repairs in the next five years. Both facts underline that Pegula will need to make a decision soon.
“Renovation is simply not an option — and neither is an extension of the lease that ends in 2023 without a deal,” Wilkinson, the Pegula spokesman, told The Post.
Sources familiar with the matter tell The Post that if Pegula can’t come up with a deal by the end of the year, he will seek other alternatives so the Bills can relocate before the lease expires.
Pegula knew at the time he purchased the team that a new stadium would be necessary, said two sports industry sources who have spoken to Pegula in recent years. Because of that, they said they’re skeptical that he would follow through on a threat to move the franchise.
“When he bought the team, he spoke about building a new stadium,” one of the sources said, adding that Pegula as of July was worth more than $7 billion, according to Bloomberg calculations. “I don’t think his threats about moving are credible.”
“I think Terry will build something. He has the money.”
“Everyone went into that 2014 auction to buy the team with their eyes open,” a second sports industry source who has spoken to Pegula said. “He doesn’t want to leave Buffalo — and he can’t stay in that building.”
If he didn’t come to an agreement for public funding, and if he decided not to put in the money himself for a new stadium, he’d likely sell the team before moving it, the source told The Post.
The Bills, which are profitable and had an operating income of $73 million last year, according to Forbes, would be a desirable franchise for any city: Chatter among NFL watchers say Austin, Texas, or even London could vie for the team if Pegula decided to leave Buffalo. And other NFL owners, who generally split the league’s profits, likely would be happy to see the Bills move to a bigger market.
In the New York City market, there is some precedent for a team’s ownership paying for its own stadium: The New York Giants and New York Jets paid $1.6 billion in 2010 to build MetLife Stadium in New Jersey without public funding.
Still, help may not be on the way for Pegula.
An Albany lobbyist following the situation said he doesn’t think Pegula’s chances of getting public funding necessarily improved with Hochul replacing Andrew Cuomo.
Hochul has announced she’s running for governor next year — and paying for a Bills stadium wouldn’t be popular with New York City-area voters. She is also very likely to face a Democratic primary challenge.
“If she comes through with a huge financial package, it doesn’t look good to Downstate voters,” the lobbyist said. “This would get her every vote in Buffalo, but she has those votes anyway.”
Pegula is also not making it any easier for her by recommending a new stadium be built next to the current one it leases in Buffalo suburb Orchard Park on a Bills-owned parking lot, according to University of Michigan Sports Management Professor Mark Rosentraub.
It’d likely be a better case for public funding if the new stadium were proposed for downtown Buffalo, which could use a shot of redevelopment, he said.
A wild card is the National Football League and whether it is pressuring Pegula to move if he can’t get public funding — and whether it would help finance a new Buffalo stadium.
NFL teams share almost all their revenue and the Bills generate perhaps the lowest amount of revenue in the league due to the current stadium’s few suites, and the relatively small Buffalo market. Because of that, many NFL owners would like to see the team move, sports industry sources said.
Still, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is from Western New York and visited Buffalo in the last few weeks making it clear he does not want the team to move.
Influential Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones said earlier this month in a radio show interview that he, also, doesn’t want the Bills to move.
“Buffalo has a special place,” Jones said. “All those AFL teams have a special place, just as Green Bay does. And so to me my wish would be they work something out and stay there.”
The NFL has a stadium fund can lend Pegula money to make it easier to finance a new stadium with or without public assistance.
For example, the NFL last year lent the Rams owner $500 million on top of $400 million he already borrowed to build a new stadium with largely his own money.
But NFL Spokesman Brian McCarthy told The Post the stadium lending program is designed to be part of a public and private partnership. It’s often a partnership between local, county and state sources, the team and the NFL. It’s available for public funding projects with team contributions.
In other words, if New York State does not come through with funding, the NFL may not help, either.
Pegula has let it be known it makes little financial sense to spend $1.4 billion himself on a stadium in Buffalo because it is just too small a market, with a metropolitan area of a little more than a million people.
The question is whether he would uproot a Buffalo institution if necessary to make his point.
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