Stadium group spurs talk on Bills' future

After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made his first appointments to a "new stadium working group" Monday, Buffalo Bills CEO Russ Brandon made it clear Tuesday that the team remains focused on upgrading -- not necessarily replacing -- its aging venue.

"We are very appreciative of the continued support of New York state and Erie County for the Buffalo Bills franchise," Brandon said in a statement. "Our primary current operations focus is, as it must be, on the modernization process that is occurring presently here at the Ralph Wilson Stadium campus."

The 21-member committee, included as part of a 10-year lease signed last year, allows seven appointments by New York state, the Bills and Erie County.

On Tuesday, Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz appeared on WGR 550, explaining why the Bills may not be head over heels about the idea of a new stadium.

"One of the discussions we had with the Bills organization as we entered into the last lease negotiations was, 'Did [the Bills] want a new stadium?' We looked at all aspects of it," Poloncarz told WGR 550. "The Bills came back, and they said 'No.' There are renovations that are necessary to update the stadium to league standards for today, but you still have these wonderful sight lines, you still have this tremendous atmosphere with the tailgating that you wouldn't have in a downtown stadium, truthfully."

Poloncarz acknowledged that the Bills, who operate within one of the NFL's smallest markets, may have difficulty funding a new stadium. The NFL's most recent venues have come with a price tag of $1 billion or more.

"I look at other stadium deals that are going on around the country right now, and they are astronomical in cost," Poloncarz said. "The Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, where San Francisco is moving, it's a $1.3 billion stadium, with the vast majority of that being paid for with luxury suites and seat licenses. Which of course you're not going to generate anything near that in the Buffalo market.

"We can't afford seat licenses and luxury suites," he added. "We were able to keep seat licenses from being included in this last lease, and I think that was a victory on the part of the county and New York state."

While financing is a potential issue, the biggest potential stumbling block between the Bills and a new stadium could be uncertainty with ownership.

"Let's put it this way: If we're going to be building a new stadium, the Bills are going to be locked in for 25 or 30 years at least," Poloncarz said.

If the next owner of the Bills desires to relocate the team before the seventh year of the 10-year lease, it will come with a $400 million buyout penalty. Poloncarz noted that the early buyout clause, along with an NFL-imposed relocation fee, could push the cost of moving the Bills to close to $2 billion.

"I've sat down and talked to Russ Brandon on this a number of times," Poloncarz said. "Numbers-wise, it would be very difficult to move this team by paying the $400 million penalty.

"So the team I believe is not only staying here because of the current lease, but if we build a new stadium, the organization is going to be locked in for a long period. We would never build a new stadium if we had a question as to whether the team was going to leave in five years."

The buyout clause drops to $28 million after the seventh year of the Bills' lease, making it easier for a new ownership group to relocate the franchise.

"I certainly hope that it's not a bidding war between a hedge fund that is interested in moving the team to Los Angeles or the group out of Toronto -- the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment -- that wants to move it up to Toronto," Poloncarz said. "I can't say I can speak on behalf of Mr. Wilson or the current Bills organization, but I do know that they would like to keep this team in Buffalo."

Poloncarz pointed out complaints about the game-day experience in the Bills' annual Toronto series, comparing the atmosphere at Ralph Wilson Stadium to that at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. However, he acknowledged that may not be enough to keep the team in the region.

"In the end, I also have to remind everybody that the NFL is a business," he said. "These are a lot of very, very wealthy individuals that have other businesses that make substantially more money than they probably do on the NFL. This is a business, and they want to see the business succeed.

"We have to be prepared to show that this community is willing to keep this team. The question is, what will it take?"