A record subsidy for Bills stadium?
There’s never been a stadium built for a National Football League team that cost taxpayers the $1 billion being bandied about for a new home for the Buffalo Bills.
Only one stadium, built to lure the Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas, even comes close, at $750 million. Three other stadiums built over the past decade involved taxpayer subsidies between $114 million and $498 million.
Another stadium, built in Los Angeles for the Rams and Chargers, was constructed entirely with $5 billion in private funds.
How the Bills and local and state governments split the cost of a new stadium is the subject of negotiations. The team, however, had made it clear it is looking for a major investment by taxpayers to build a stadium that would cost a minimum of $1.4 billion.
A $1 billion subsidy would dwarf what governments have spent on other NFL stadiums, said Pat Garofalo, director of state and local policy for the American Economic Liberties Project.
“This would be the largest stadium subsidy in American history,” he told Investigative Post.
NFL stadiums built in the past decade
|Team stadium built for||Cost||Public money|
|Las Vegas Raiders||$2 billion||$750 million|
|Minnesota Vikings||$1.1 billion||$498 million|
|Atlanta Falcons||$1.5 billion||$214 million|
|San Francisco 49ers||$1.3 billion||$114 million|
|LA Rams, Chargers||$5 billion||$0|
Source: Investigative Post research.
A study prepared for the state estimates the Buffalo Bills generate nearly $27 million in tax revenue annually. That’s money that could conceivably be put towards a new stadium.
That begs the question: what does $27 million buy?
Tax revenue could be put towards covering the public’s share of stadium costs, or at least offset the cost of borrowing. Twenty-seven-million dollars could buy about $500 million in municipal bonds, a common way of funding public projects.
“We know, based on the Pegulas’ own estimates, that a new stadium is going to cost approximately $1.4 billion, but we don’t know how much money they are looking at from taxpayers, we don’t know how much money New York state is going to put in and that’s problematic,” said Joseph Lorigo, minority leader of the Erie County Legislature.
Stadium deals in other cities
Investigative Post reviewed the financial deals of the five NFL stadiums built in the past decade.
Here are the details:
- The San Francisco 49ers relocated about an hour south to Santa Clara in 2014. The stadium cost $1.3 billion; the city put up $114 million, using economic development funds and increasing the occupancy tax on hotels near the stadium. The deal also granted the team tax breaks on some revenue generated at the stadium worth an estimated $106 million and $213 million over 20 years.
- A new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings opened in 2016 in downtown Minneapolis. The state and city kicked in $498 million for the $1.1 billion stadium. The state raised its share of funds through digital gambling, the city by raising the tax on hotel rooms.
- The Atlanta Falcons began play at a $1.5 billion stadium in 2017. The public share of the project was $214 million, generated by an increase in the tax on hotel rooms.
- The Raiders began play in Las Vegas in 2020. The stadium cost $2 billion; the public share of financing came to $750 million, funded by an increase in the hotel tax. (Because the pandemic dramatically reduced hotel revenues, the county has been forced to dip into reserve funds to cover debt service payments for the stadium.)
- A stadium also opened last year in Inglewood, in metropolitan Los Angeles. The $5 billion project was financed by Rams owner Stan Kroenke with help from the league. The stadium is part of a larger complex that includes shopping, hotels and offices.
There has been no public discussion in Buffalo about how the state or county would come up with the revenue to pay for its share of the costs for a new Bills stadium. While hotel taxes have been a favored way of funding stadiums in other markets, Western New York is not as strong of a tourist destination as most of them.
The team does, however, generate tax revenue that could either be used to help finance the public portion of stadium costs, or at least offset some of the expense.
Taxes generated by the team
The state released a study earlier this month on stadium options and costs. The consulting firm AECOM found the Bills generate nearly $27 million in tax revenue a year for the state, Erie County and City of Buffalo.
The bulk of the money— $19.5 million— is in the form of income taxes paid by players, coaches and other team staff members. Most of the rest, $5.1 million, is collected in sales taxes on everything from tickets to concessions to team merchandise.
Timothy Noonan, an attorney with Hodgson Russ who specializes in tax management, said most Bills players and coaches pay income taxes in New York even if their primary place of residence is in another state.
Under state tax law, Noonan said anyone— Bills players and staff members included— is considered a resident if they spend 183 days or more per year working in New York. With offseason workouts, preseason and regular season games, Noonan said most players and coaches meet or exceed that threshold.
Noonan said individuals earning less than $2 million per year pay an income tax rate of 6.85 percent. The rate jumps to 10.9 percent for individuals like Bills quarterback Josh Allen who earn more than $25 million.
“Regardless of whether they establish residency, whether they move here, to the extent they are getting paid for performing services in the state of New York, they owe New York income tax,” Noonan said.
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Visiting players, coaches and staff members also pay a small percentage of income tax whenever they play at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park. The tax paid for so-called “duty days” is based on the percentage of time they work in New York, which is typically a few days during a week when their team is playing the Bills.
“When Tom Brady comes here to play the Bills and he’s here for a few days, he owes New York state income tax,” Noonan said.
Noonan noted that players, coaches and staff who work for the home team contribute to the economy in other ways when they buy taxable goods like homes and cars.
“Certainly an influx of high-income earning taxpayers is going to be good for the local economy,” he said.
It’s unclear whether income or sales taxes could be used to sell municipal bonds in this circumstance. But the tax revenue does provide net income to state and local governments.
Tax revenue is presently reduced by expenses the county absorbs for the operation of the current stadium in Orchard Park. Incoming County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick pegs costs at $10 million a year.
Other potential sources of revenue include concessions, parking and naming rights. But the county does not have a claim under the lease on the current stadium that took effect in 2013.
Legislators weigh in
County legislators have pressed Poloncarz for details on stadium negotiations, but neither the county executive nor state officials have been willing to discuss particulars or give lawmakers a seat at the negotiating table.
“The county executive is talking about getting a deal done by the end of the year, which means they are further along in the negotiations than I think anybody realizes, and the Legislature still hasn’t been brought to the table,” said Lorigo, a Conservative who represents West Seneca.
Hardwick, D-Tonawanda, said concluding a deal by the end of this year sounds ambitious. It’s more likely to be finalized in the first quarter of next year, he said.
Like Lorigo, Hardwick said he has not received any specific numbers, but he expects the public share for a new stadium will be around $1 billion. He said he does not believe the county will be responsible for the “lion’s share,” and instead expects the state to cover the larger portion of any public contribution.
Hardwick said he expects the county’s share will be bonded over a period of years, similar to the way the county has been paying off the $130 million spent to improve the existing stadium. That deal, Hardwick said, costs about $10 million per year, a number he described as “doable.”
“I mean we’re doing it, we’ve been doing it, people don’t seem to be complaining about it and people, especially with the Bills winning, like the product that’s been on the field,” he said.
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While acknowledging that the cost of a new stadium for government funders will likely be higher than $10 million per year, Hardwick said he views the Bills impact, including the nearly $27 million in tax revenues identified in the state study, would at least partially offset the cost of a new stadium.
“Without the Bills here, you wouldn’t see that money coming in,” Hardwick said. “Now, $27 million probably is not going to cover the whole cost of the stadium, but there are other economic benefits to having an NFL franchise here.”
Lorigo said he found the Bills $27 million contribution “shocking.” He described it as a “drop in the bucket” amid talk of a $1 billion public investment.
“I think any new deal, whether it’s for a new stadium or a new lease, should reflect the fact that they’re not providing enough economic impact and they should be paying more into the stadium,” he said.