On 7 April 2022, New York state lawmakers approved a $220 billion budget that included, among many other items, an enormous subsidy of public money to the Buffalo Bills NFL franchise to build a new stadium. The subsidy includes $600 million from the state and $250 million from Erie County – which the Bills call home – in upfront contributions to construction costs, plus about $400 million split between the state and county for maintenance and repair over the length of the 30 year deal. It is the largest public subsidy for an NFL stadium in history. Erie County’s contribution still has to be fully approved by local officials, but they have already set aside a $100 million down payment.
The team itself will pay $550 million of the $1.4 billion construction costs and contribute less than $1 million per year for upkeep.
The size of the subsidy begs the question: is this a good use of New Yorkers’ money?
For one thing, the 60,000 seat, $1.4 billion dollar stadium is going to serve as the home field for a team worth less than $2.3 billion. For another, the team’s owner – Terrence Pegula, of Boca Raton, Florida – is worth nearly $6 billion.
But setting aside the issue of whether it makes sense to give $1.2 billion dollars to a sports team for a stadium that will cost more than half the total value of the team itself when the owner could afford to build the stadium himself and still be a multi-billionaire, there are the questions of where the money comes from, whether it could be better spent elsewhere, and whether New Yorkers think it should be spent on the team.
Almost $420 million of the state’s contribution is coming from casino revenue from the Seneca Nation, a move the Native American tribe was not pleased with. And, to me, the subsidy seems to indicate an unfortunate set of priorities: My downtown Manhattan State Assemblyperson noted that the state is going to give more money to the Bills than it will spend on public schools or efforts to combat climate change, and a Brooklyn State Senator pointed out that public health facilities are still struggling for money in the middle of a pandemic.
I don’t seem to be alone in my distaste: two separate polls have found that the majority of New Yorkers disapprove of the subsidy – and rightly so: not only is this an incredibly large investment of public money in a project that’s unlikely to deliver any real returns (studies have found that subsidies for sports arenas don’t actually bring the economic benefits they claim), it is money that could and should be spent addressing more pressing priorities for New York, and the nation as a whole, like clean energy, clean transportation, public health and education. True, taxes on players’ income might contribute to addressing these and other priorities. But in no other industry do we allocate all tax revenue earned off a company back to that company – why should professional sports be any different?
The New York subsidy to the Buffalo Bills is not the first public funding of a private sports facility, and it may not be the last (though it is, as of now, the biggest). But in the past, opposition to publicly funded sports venues has sometimes been successful, as was the case in Boston in the early 2000s around the Red Sox’s attempt to build a new stadium, or in 2015 when opposition to Boston hosting the 2024 summer Olympics caused the mayor to pull the bid. And while New York has committed to its subsidy, the rest of the country may not be in the same mindset: federal lawmakers introduced a bill in February that would remove the tax exempt status from municipal bonds used to subsidize new sports stadiums, and the Virginia legislature suspended a vote at the end of May on a subsidy for a new stadium to lure the Washington Commanders football team to the state.
Many elected officials – who are entrusted to represent the public interest – like to talk about fiscal responsibility and using public money for public good. Maybe it’s time they stop wasting money on boondoggle subsidies for sports teams and start putting our money where their mouths are.