PALM BEACH, Fla. – Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy, a Clarence High School graduate, beamed after National Football League owners voted Monday morning to help finance construction of a $1.4 billion open-air stadium for the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park.
“I went to the very first game at Rich Stadium,” Murphy told The Buffalo News during a break in the league’s annual meetings at The Breakers resort in South Florida. “It was exciting. I think it took my father and I about two hours to get in. People hadn’t figured out how to get to the stadium yet.”
The epic tailgating culture and identity forged by Bills fans over the last half century of professional football at the venue now known as Highmark Stadium will remain an integral part of the social fabric of Western New York for generations to come.
People are also reading…
The Bills plan to unveil a new stadium in time for the 2026 season across the street on Abbott Road, after a public-private financing agreement was announced Monday.
And after several NFL teams relocated in recent years, Murphy joined a chorus of league owners and executives in praising Bills owners Kim and Terry Pegula, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after the group reached an “ironclad” 30-year agreement to keep the Bills entrenched in the league’s second-smallest market.
“That was a decision that they made and I give them credit for working so hard and getting it done,” Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis told The News, two years after moving his franchise from Oakland, Calif., for the second time in its storied history. “I give credit to Hochul for being aggressive and coming in and saying, ‘Yeah, we understand what the NFL means to our community and we’re going to invest in it.’ ”
The public will provide $850 million to fund construction, pending approval by New York State and Erie County lawmakers, Hochul and Poloncarz announced shortly after NFL owners voted on the deal. New York is slated contribute $600 million and Erie County $250 million.
The state budget deadline is Friday.
Erie County legislators have said they may take up to 30 days to approve the deal.
“The elected officials need to step up,” said sports consultant Marc Ganis, who has worked with most NFL owners, after the league approved the private financing. “This is incredibly important, but it is far from over. This is like Seattle at the 1-yard line against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and instead of giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch to put it over, they threw a pass and it got intercepted.
“They can’t have that mistake happen.”
The NFL agreed to provide a $200 million loan to the Pegulas to help fund stadium construction. Up to $150 million is forgivable, repaid through the visiting teams’ share of Bills ticket revenue over 25 years.
The loan is contingent on both public financing and the Pegulas contributing at least $200 million of their own equity to the project, according to the terms of the league’s “G-4” loan program.
The Pegulas needed at least three-quarters of the NFL’s team owners – 24 of 32 – to vote in favor of the loan, which was considered a formality after the league’s joint stadium-finance committee agreed to recommend the deal Friday.
The vote was unanimous Monday.
“It was 32-0, so it doesn’t get any easier than that,” said Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, a member of the league’s finance committee. “I think it’s a great development for the fans. Bills Mafia, they deserve it, and small market teams need government help.”
New York and Erie County provided some clarity on how much the public will spend on a new, $1.4 billion Buffalo Bills stadium. But government officials left some specific questions unanswered.
The Pegulas are contributing at least $350 million toward stadium construction, plus the $50 million they will have to reimburse the league.
A portion of those funds will come from the sale of about 50,000 personal seat licenses to all season ticket holders, beginning around $1,000 apiece.
The Pegulas are also responsible for any cost overruns.
NFL senior vice president of club finance Kevin Flaherty and vice president of events Matthew Shapiro presented the proposed financing deal to league owners, and Goodell praised Hochul and Poloncarz behind closed doors.
Murphy said Terry Pegula was “very appreciative” after league owners voted to approve the funding.
“He thanked everybody,” Murphy said, “and he made specific mention of this is kind of a model for small markets across the league.”
The Pegulas released a statement through the Bills saying Monday’s developments were another step toward the “collective goal” of a new stadium. They have yet to agree to speak to reporters.
Goodell, a Jamestown native, is expected to speak with reporters Tuesday.
“This has been vitally important to the league, to Roger Goodell personally,” Ganis said. “He has a massive, very effective team effort at the league. He had a whole team put together to work on this – legal, finance, stadium development, fan engagement, all together working on this. This was priority one on their list.”
The state will own the stadium and serve as its landlord, similar to the arrangement in place between the Bills and Erie County since Highmark Stadium opened in 1973.
“I think New York State and the governor and the county have done a wonderful job, and I think it’s just fantastic for the Buffalo community and Western New York,” Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said. “It’s a real positive win-win for the state, the county, and the fans and the team.”
The agreement to finance the stadium has been negotiated since late summer, after an engineering study commissioned by the county and completed in early 2021 determined the upper deck at Highmark Stadium would need to be replaced in five to seven years.
A separate engineering report commissioned by the state determined building a new stadium was more cost effective than renovating the existing venue, which is expected to be razed for parking space.
Bills coach Sean McDermott had a simple request for what he wanted in a new stadium: “Loud. That’s my preference.”
Ron Raccuia, the executive vice president of Pegula Sports and Entertainment and lead negotiator for the Bills’ owners, referenced the coach’s comments in announcing the deal to reporters in Palm Beach.
“I heard coach say he wants it loud,” Raccuia said. “Trust me, it will be loud. It will be intense, it will be intimate, it will take a lot of the great features of Highmark right now, which is unbelievable sight lines and bring them over to the new stadium in a modern, really state-of-the-art way.”
“No. None of them are for sale,” said Ron Raccuia, PSE’s executive vice president. “None of them are for sale, none will be. There’s no plans at all for that.”
The new stadium will seat between 60,000 and 62,000 fans, with room for up to 5,000 more spectators on a standing-room-only party deck, a capacity in line with historic attendance figures.
“It’s exciting for Buffalo,” Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said. “I think like Green Bay, Kansas City, Buffalo is a big part of the NFL.
“I’ve been fortunate to be there the last five years, and hopefully I’ll be there when it opens,” he said smiling.
A dome was ruled out, but approximately 80% of the seats will be covered by a partial roof or overhang to shield fans from inclement weather.
“I’m glad that they’re going to be playing in the elements,” Murphy, the Packers executive and Clarence High graduate said. “I think that’s the way football is meant to be played. Nothing against domed stadiums, but I know at Lambeau, we’ve talked about putting a dome on it. And it’s not feasible financially. And it’s really part of our aura or reputation, is playing in the elements.”
The new stadium is expected to have a grass field and far larger footprint than the team’s current 70,000-seat venue – approximately 1.5 million square feet, compared to about 900,000 square feet – which will allow for larger seats and concourses, other enhanced amenities and will help streamline gameday operations, PSE officials have said.
The Pegulas have hired the architecture firm Populous to design the stadium. Renderings could be released to the public next month.
The Bills will continue to play in Highmark Stadium until the new venue opens.
“This is great for the community,” Murphy said. “You have to give a lot of credit to the governor and the county executive to step up. The Bills are the only team that plays in New York State, so this was really important for the state and the county. And as a Bills fan, I’m really happy for Bills fans. I think they’re going to love the new stadium.”