Mar 16


Bills stadium plans are an outlier

Plans for a football-only venue in a far-flung suburb with no ancillary development are out of step with NFL trends.

Most modern NFL stadiums operate as year-round destinations. Their development includes shops, restaurants, bars and the like, or they are built in proximity to existing entertainment venues. 

While the offerings vary, the goal is the same: provide reasons for people to visit beyond 10 football games a year. 

The Bills are demanding a $1.4 billion, 62,000-seat, open-air stadium in Orchard Park. Those plans make no mention of ancillary development common at most other stadiums. What’s more, Town of Orchard Park officials told Investigative Post the team has not spoken to them about any related development.

The apparent lack of ancillary development, coupled with the stadium’s single-purpose design and location far from the urban core, make it an outlier among NFL venues, experts told Investigative Post.

“It certainly stands out as an anomaly relative to what we’re seeing in other locations across the country,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the Sports Business Program for Washington University in Saint Louis.

Most of the newest stadiums were designed for use beyond just football games. The most exotic of them, SoFi Stadium in suburban Los Angeles, features shops, restaurants, offices and a park, complete with a lake.

Older stadiums have been refurbished with an eye on making them more than a place to watch a football game. Over the years, the New England Patriots developed Patriot Place, a complex almost as large as Walden Galleria that includes shops, restaurants, hotels and a movie theater. In 2017, the Green Bay Packers opened Title Town next to Lambeau Field, a complex that features bars, restaurants, offices, a hotel and a skating rink.

“This whole movement in pro sports ownership towards real estate development, having that as a piece of the puzzle, stems from the fact that organizations are trying to find ways to make money year-round,” Rishe said. 

What do the Bills have in mind? Investigative Post contacted both the Bills and Pegula Sports and Entertainment seeking an interview. Neither responded.

Stadiums as destinations

The five newest NFL stadiums — all built since 2014, each at a cost of more than $1 billion — were designed with more than just football in mind. Other NFL teams currently eyeing new stadiums, including the Tennessee Titans, Chicago Bears and Washington Commanders, are expected to follow similar models. 

The NFL’s largest and most-expensive stadiums are found in big cities like Los Angeles, where the $5 billion, privately financed SoFi Stadium hosts both the Rams and Chargers football teams. 

SoFi is massive, expandable by up to 100,000 seats, and including a music and theater venue that holds 6,000. SoFi hosted this year’s Super Bowl. On the schedule are the NCAA College Football Championship Game in 2023 and the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic games in 2028.

While considered the gold standard of stadiums, SoFi is not the best example to consider for Buffalo, the NFL’s second-smallest market behind Green Bay. Stadiums in Indianapolis and Minneapolis are more relevant examples.

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 Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, opened in 2008. The 67,000-seat downtown venue is connected to the Indiana Convention Center. The stadium and the convention center are linked to a mall and hotels, providing visitors access 4,700 hotel rooms without ever stepping outside. The stadium also features two exhibit halls and 12 meeting rooms. 

A 2018 report on the 10th anniversary of the stadium suggested it has not lived up to initial projections that it would “ignite new development in the largely industrial neighborhood where it stands” and generate “unlimited opportunities” to host “world-class” sporting events. 

Lucas Oil Stadium did host the Super Bowl in 2012 and has welcomed soccer matches, college football games, and three NCAA men’s basketball tournament regionals and two Final Fours. The venue will host the Big Ten college football championship game and a college football national championship playoff game later this year. 

In a typical year, Lucas Oil Stadium hosts about 200 events, including corporate meetings and wedding receptions. 

U.S. Bank Stadium, located in downtown Minneapolis, opened in 2016. The $1.1 billion home of the Minnesota Vikings has a transparent roof that lets in natural light while protecting fans from the elements. 

During the NFL offseason, the 73,000-seat venue hosts concerts, Minnesota University baseball games and other events. Before the pandemic, the stadium also hosted Super Bowl LII, the X Games and the NCAA college basketball tournament.

In its first three years of operation, U.S. Bank stadium held 1,156 public and private events, drawing in 4.6 million visitors.

Part of the stadium’s development involved creation of The Commons, a 4.2-acre park that is connected to the stadium and replaced parking lots.

Dan Collison, executive director of the East Town Business Partnership, a business advocacy group, said the stadium project has been part of a larger redevelopment effort covering about 11 blocks.  

Collison said the design of the new stadium represented a departure from its predecessor, the Metrodome, which was demolished in 2014. 

“People can move in and around the current stadium and sort of interact with it in a meaningful way that’s different from what the other stadium offered,” he said.

Projects being planned

The Titans, Bears and Washington’s newly renamed Commanders are considering multi-purpose stadiums with ancillary development. 

The Titans have presented a $2 billion plan for a mixed-use waterfront stadium in Nashville that would be in walking distance of the city’s thriving entertainment district. It would be part of a larger community development project involving riverfront parks, green space, housing units, offices, stores and restaurants. 

Like the Bills, the Bears appear intent on a suburban location for their new stadium. They recently agreed to a $197 million purchase of 30 acres in Arlington Heights. Published reports say the team is planning to use the site to build a stadium that could cost as much as $2 billion. Reports suggest the team’s owners want the venue to have uses beyond football. 

The Commanders are considering three stadium sites, including one in Sterling, Virginia, located 29 miles from Washington, D.C. The Sterling stadium proposal calls for the construction of a $3 billion stadium and mixed-use development.

Ancillary development 

Ancillary stadium development — creating projects on land adjacent to a venue — has become commonplace in recent years, said Rishe, the sports business professor. And it’s not limited to professional football.

In Rishe’s home city, an investment group that controls the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team operates Ballpark Village, a dining and entertainment district across from Busch Stadium. 

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The hockey arena for the New York Islanders that opened last fall on Long Island includes shops, restaurants, a hotel and a train station.

“Because the cost of sports has become more expensive, with salaries and the like, and trying to engage with fans and give them the premium experience that they want, you have to find ways to monetize where and when you can,” Rishe said. 

Bills study findings 

A study commissioned by Empire State Development Corp. and conducted by the private consultant AECOM found a new NFL stadium is “unlikely to drive new private ancillary development in and of itself.”

AECOM’s study, released late last year, explored the potential for ancillary development in Orchard Park and downtown Buffalo. It determined that both sites have “limited potential to spark significant upfront real estate investment,” but identified the downtown location as having greater potential to “improve surrounding property values and, subsequently, increase local property tax collections.” 

“It is not expected that a new/renovated stadium in either geography will significantly change real estate development trends, which are driven by the underlying demographics and economics of the area,” the study found.  

The study stressed that a new stadium could “serve as a centerpiece for a larger mixed-use urban redevelopment effort,” but it would require “broad public consensus and additional specific policy actions and funding to facilitate.”  

Orchard Park in the dark 

If the new Orchard Park stadium is going to be part of a larger development, town officials don’t know about it. 

Conor Flynn, an Orchard Park councilman, said neither he nor his colleagues have been briefed on stadium talks by local or state negotiators or representatives of the team. 

“The rumors are the same ones we hear about and the same ones that you write about,” he said. “That’s how much we know about it.” 

Flynn said he would welcome discussion about ancillary development.

“I’ve been advocating for some use in addition to a football stadium, but I want to be very clear that is not something that the county, the state or the Bills organization has represented to me. We have not had discussions,” he said. 

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A second town council member, Scott Honer, confirmed that the Bills have not engaged with Orchard Park officials.

“The town would very much like to be involved in these Bills’ stadium decisions. However, the county and the Bills have not included us in the discussions,” Honer told Investigative Post in an email.

“The Orchard Park Economic Development Committee, the Orchard Park Chamber of Commerce and town officials have spoken and/or discussed many ideas on how to make a future Orchard Park stadium area a destination,” he continued.  

“These talks include hotel(s), restaurants, coordinated connections to our great parks system, weekend options in our town, other towns and the City of Buffalo, and a possible Bills museum.”

Geared for more than just football 

Opinions vary on whether the Bills need more than a stand-alone football stadium to survive in Western New York long-term. 

George Hasiotis, who led a group that pitched a proposal for a waterfront domed stadium in Buffalo in 2013, believes it is essential for a small-market team like the Bills to develop a stadium that accommodates more than football games and the occasional concert. 

He argues that building a multi-use facility creates greater potential return on investment, not only for the Bills but taxpayers who are reportedly going to be on the hook for $1 billion of the $1.4 billion project in Orchard Park. 

“Buffalo has some advantages, and having the great base of fans and community support in the region is important, but it doesn’t mean that much ultimately to the NFL, because the NFL is about revenue sharing for the league and their owners,” Hasiotis said. 

“Buffalo right now is at the bottom of the list in terms of the kind of return they give to the NFL and their owners.” 

Hasiotis estimated that a waterfront stadium in Buffalo would have attracted about 600,000 football fans per year. His group’s plan also envisioned a North American Museum of Sports and Competition, a program operated by the Strong Museum of Rochester, that he projected would generate another 600,000 visitors annually.

In addition, Hasiotis said the stadium would have hosted other events, including soccer and basketball games and, possibly, a Super Bowl.

“There’s money in it if there’s more than football,” Hasiotis said. “It can’t just be football.”

Michael Bogucki, a senior principal with the Buffalo office of the consulting firm Venue Strategies, isn’t convinced that building a dome or multi-purpose stadium would generate substantial year-round use. 

“An NFL stadium – whether it’s domed or open air – is suitable, first and foremost, for pro football games,” Bogucki said. “There are some exceptions, but they are very rare.” 

Bogucki, who has worked as a sports marketing and facilities consultant since 1986, noted that Highmark Stadium has hosted just six concerts since 2015, all involving premiere acts like U2, Beyonce and Billy Joel. He said other area venues — including Keybank Center and Darien Lake’s amphitheater — are more suitable to host concerts and other shows.

He doesn’t think a new football stadium, even one with a dome, would change that. 

“The statement from ‘Field of Dreams’ — ‘If you build it, they will come’ — does not generally apply in my experience.”