The Buffalo Bills are among the favorites to win the Super Bowl in February but Dennice Barr has other priorities as winter approaches.
Barr is a community leader in the Fruit Belt, an historic but deprived majority African American area near downtown Buffalo. With a median household income of under $28,000, a ticket to an NFL game is out of reach for many residents. As the cost of living soars and the weather worsens they are more focused on access to food and heating.
Named for the orchards planted in the 1800s by German immigrants, the Fruit Belt became popular with Black arrivals in the 1950s but its character and prosperity were devastated by a new expressway that barrels through the neighborhood; dividing the community, Barr said, “for the benefit of white flight”.
In the 1960s the Bills played on the northern fringe of the Fruit Belt in the oval War Memorial Stadium, nicknamed The Rockpile. Some of the imposing old classical-style facades remain, evoking a faded grandeur.
Barr, 64, remembers sitting outside on game days as a child, “watching people run from the stadium down the hill to their cars” after matches because they “feared our community was dangerous, so they had to flee from us even in our own little space.” Then the team left.
The Bills relocated to what is today called Highmark Stadium in 1973, moving to Orchard Park, a green, quiet and sparsely populated place an 11-mile drive south of downtown Buffalo. Now they are finalizing a deal to replace dated Highmark with a new stadium proposed to open in 2026.
But the team will not return to the city center. Plans call for the venue to be built in a parking lot adjacent to Highmark – with local and state taxpayers footing $850m of the $1.4bn cost. That would be the largest ever public subsidy for a new NFL stadium – much of it covered by a county with many low-income residents for the benefit of a franchise owned by a multi-billionaire.
Known for the agony of losing four successive Super Bowls in the 1990s, the Bills are becoming a case study in how property deals get struck between power brokers and politicians, and a touchstone for the question of what, if anything, a team owes its community – and vice versa.
The plans run counter to the modern trend for fully enclosed stadiums in urban areas that are readily accessible by foot and public transport and envisioned as engines for local regeneration. They call for a reduction of about 10,000 in capacity compared with 72,000-seat Highmark. Nor will there be a roof over the playing field, which limits the feasible number of non-football events and all but rules out Buffalo from ever hosting a Super Bowl, while the remote location is unlikely to catalyse new ancillary developments.
Full details are yet to be publicly revealed as negotiations conclude. But advocates who spoke to the Guardian expressed disappointment at the distant car-centric site, seeing the scheme as a missed opportunity to help regenerate central Buffalo, and frustration at the lack of a substantive community benefits agreement (CBA) – a contract between local groups and developers that lays out specific plans to help improve residents’ lives.
Though the second-largest metropolitan area in New York, with a population of about 1.2m people, Buffalo is one of the smallest NFL markets – renowned, like Green Bay, for its fanatical supporter culture, blue-collar ethos and snowy winter weather.
The underdog reputation of team and region is a symptom of demographic and economic decline. In 1960, the Bills’ first season in the American Football League, Buffalo was the 18th-most populous urban area in the country. Now it’s 49th. But the Bills’ owners are hardly in need of a helping hand.
Terry Pegula, a 71-year-old fracking tycoon who also owns the Buffalo Sabres NHL franchise with his wife, Kim, is worth almost $8bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The Pegulas acquired the Bills for a then-NFL record $1.4bn in 2014, outbidding Donald Trump and Jon Bon Jovi. The team is now valued at $3.4bn by Forbes, with a new home certain to enhance its worth.
The sale calmed nerves that a new owner might move the franchise elsewhere, perhaps to Toronto. “Our interest in owning the Bills has everything to do with the people of western New York and our passion for football. We have knowledgeable, dedicated fans here, and along with our ownership of the Buffalo Sabres it is gratifying to reassure these great fans that two franchises so important to our region are both here to stay,” Terry Pegula said.
His emissaries gave a different impression last year when the Bills let it be known they wanted public subsidies for a new stadium – ideally, 100% taxpayer funded – and would not renew their lease in 2023 without a deal. The threat of relocation was implied rather than explicit, but taken seriously given the probability that the Bills could make more money elsewhere; Austin or Portland, say; or even London.
That put pressure on Erie County officials to strike a deal rather than risk the wrath of voters should the Bills leave town. In business, after all, vulnerability equals leverage.
“If that was a negotiating tactic I think it worked, to quiet a lot of discussion for some time,” said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of Partnership for the Public Good, a community think tank in Buffalo. “We still see ourselves maybe with low self-esteem and as this small place that generations of folks left, and that’s why I think we can’t risk the Bills leaving.”
The area has an influential booster: the governor of New York, Kathy Hochul. The Democrat was born in Buffalo and her husband is a senior executive at Delaware North, the Buffalo-headquartered food service and hospitality giant which operates at Highmark.
Hochul announced a stadium agreement in March: of the $1.4bn, Erie County will contribute $250m, the NFL and Bills $550m and New York state will provide $600m. That $850m in taxpayer funds – not including maintenance expected to raise the cost for state and local governments to $1.1bn over 30 years – is $100m more than the then-record incentive approved by Nevada lawmakers in 2016 as they enticed the NFL’s Raiders to switch from Oakland to Las Vegas.
Erie County owns Highmark Stadium and currently pays in excess of $10m annually towards operating costs, according to the Investigative Post. New York state will own the new venue and lease it to the Bills.
In a statement describing the team as a “proven economic driver”, Hochul claimed: “the Bills will stay in Buffalo for another 30 years, the project will create 10,000 union jobs and New Yorkers can rest assured that their investment will be recouped by the economic activity the team generates.” That last assertion has been picked apart by sports finance analysts including Neil deMause and Victor Matheson, who called it “one of the worst stadium deals in recent memory”.
A day after her announcement, Hochul revealed where $418m of the $600m will come from: disputed tax revenue collected from the Seneca Nation, a Native American nation based in western New York which generates the bulk of its revenue from casinos.
The state froze the Senecas’ bank accounts, producing a furious reaction from the nation’s president, Matthew Pagels, who said that the temporary inability to access funds jeopardized access to vital services for the 8,500 members.
“She kind of put her knee on our throat to force the release of that money by freezing our operating accounts,” Pagels told the Guardian. “It would happen to nobody else but an underserved nation … she’s in the press saying, ‘Oh look, I got the Seneca money and we’re going to build a stadium with it’.”
In April the Nation ran commercials on local radio and television blasting Hochul for spending the money on a stadium instead of transport and education. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s dress-down day here in the Nation and I’m wearing a Bills sweater,” Pagels said.
“My mom was a Bills fan, I am a Bills fan. But at the end of the day the way the governor did what she did is what strikes the most anger. It’s not that we’re mad that they’re funding a Bills stadium – there probably could have been a 2% tax increase or some sort of investment by the ownership that could have probably gotten them there too – but what the governor did was, ‘I know a quick way to get $400m in my coffers’.”
Tipped to win their first Super Bowl this season, the Bills opened their campaign with an impressive 31-10 win over the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Los Angeles Rams, at SoFi Stadium in southern California.
SoFi cost about $5bn – all funded privately by the owner, Stan Kroenke. It hosts the Rams, moved by Kroenke from St Louis in 2016, and the Chargers, who played in San Diego until 2017.
Across the street, Steve Ballmer, the owner of the LA Clippers basketball team (who began life in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves) is privately funding a new $2bn arena. The Clippers agreed a $100m CBA with the Inglewood city council that includes funding for projects such as a library and community center, college scholarships, after-school tutoring, student counseling and low-interest loans for affordable housing.
CBAs to help underserved residents in areas surrounding stadiums are common. For Nashville’s new MLS stadium, developers agreed to construct affordable housing, a childcare facility and space for small businesses at the site. But activists in Buffalo said they had not been offered a seat at the negotiating table during a secretive process which is expected to be finalized in the next couple of weeks.
Asked for comment, the Erie County chief executive, Mark Poloncarz, issued a statement pointing to the memorandum of understanding in March between the Bills, county and state, which included a vague and basic framework for donated tickets and parking passes, use of the stadium for up to five civic events per year, a suite for the county, and “certain other community benefits and charitable efforts”. Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the Bills’ parent company, did not respond to a request for comment.
“A lot of the early [CBAs] really just focused on that period of construction and then just direct employment in the stadium,” Ó Súilleabháin said. “They start now to include things like funding outside youth sports, funding libraries, funding childcare, funding grocery stores, and that’s the kind of investment that I think this coalition really wants to see here – direct neighborhood investment, especially around transit, food access, youth support, youth sports … you could hire local artists to put murals, to fund local art.”
The art of tailgating has at least reached its zenith at Highmark. Roads around the stadium were gridlocked hours before kickoff in the home opener as thousands of fans – diehards are known as the Bills Mafia – gathered and reveled in the open-air concrete lots that extend for a quarter-mile to the north, south and west.
“I would have loved there to be a downtown open-air stadium or at least something closer to downtown,” said Nick Manning, a 42-year-old British-Canadian dual citizen who crosses the border and travels 120 miles to games from his home in Ontario. “But you can’t have a Buffalo Bills stadium without what we’re stood in now, thousands of people sharing a kind of community experience. There are people I’ve never met before outside of Bills games and tailgating who I would consider family and friends who you’d do anything for. You can’t have Buffalo Bills without this.”
He spoke under a portable canopy, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II dangling from the top. A man dressed as Elvis led a throng of blue-clad fans in a chant of “Let’s Go Buffalo” while others lined up for grilled meats and pizza cooked in an oven made from a filing cabinet.
“I think the Bills have a special place in the fabric of society here,” Manning said. “I’ve been to other places, I’m not sure Miami Dolphins fans would want to make the same argument for Miami Dolphins and the fabric of society in Miami in the same way that you could make the case here in Buffalo.”
He added: “My big worry is that the new stadium will price me and the rest of the Bills fans here out of the market.” Fewer seats likely means higher ticket prices and the team intends to offset some of its costs by charging for personal seat licenses. In other words, supporters will have to pay thousands of dollars for the right to purchase season tickets.
Ken Johnson, known as ‘Pinto Ron’ for his 1980 Ford Pinto, attended 423 successive Bills games until Covid restrictions ended his streak. “I’m looking forward to a modern stadium,” he said. “I don’t like downtown stadiums, the parking is inadequate, you don’t get the tailgate environment like this if you’re downtown. This you can only get in the ‘burbs.”
As part of a bizarre pregame tradition a crowd assembles to squirt ketchup and mustard on the 64-year-old software engineer, head to toe. In the northeast US, he said, “Pro franchises mean a lot more to the community than in other parts of the country … It’s a blue collar crowd, there’s not a lot to do in winter. If you’re in LA you’ve got a thousand choices.”
After an on-field ceremony honoring the 10 lives lost in May in the racist mass shooting at a supermarket near the Fruit Belt, the Bills beat the Tennessee Titans 41-7 in front of an ecstatic full house. The thrashing was masterminded by the star quarterback, Josh Allen, who signed a contract extension in 2021 that will pay him $258m over six years.
“Man, I’m an old dude,” Johnson said, wiping ketchup and mustard from his silvery beard. “If the Bills win the Super Bowl I might die in a little while because my life’s dream will be achieved and I won’t have anything more to live for.”