In recent years, NFL franchises have transitioned away from the standard, cookie-cutter stadiums that were more common in the late 20th century in favor of sustainable, cutting-edge venues with indoor-outdoor features and capabilities to maximize franchise profits, provide fans with the ultimate game day experiences and improve the economic health of the surrounding communities.
The NFL stadium experience has been particularly revolutionized due to the recent constructions of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles (home to both the Rams and the Chargers) and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas (home to the Raiders). Mark Williams, head of the sports and entertainment practice at HKS, a global architectural firm that designed SoFi as well as the notable AT&T Stadium in Dallas (home to the Cowboys), Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (home to the Colts) and U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (home to the Vikings), states that the new movement is “about building environments and experiences so that people can experience sports entertainment at a different and deeper level.” Architects and engineers strive to apply new technology and create social spaces for a more worthwhile experience. However, they must also take into consideration the rising interest rates and construction costs when designing the schematics.
SoFi is easily the most expensive stadium ever built, costing over $5.5 billion, while Allegiant is also among the most expensive, costing $1.9 billion. SoFi and Allegiant have raised the bar by incorporating new technological innovations and catering to changing consumer expectations. Despite such high costs, the stadiums have been cited as beneficial investments, leading to an increase in fan attendance and city tourism, a positive economic impact and enriched communities through new infrastructure and public parks.
Since these two stadiums opened their doors to spectators in 2020, several other NFL teams have begun the process of either major renovations or full-scale replacements of their homes, including the Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Washington Commanders, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals. This article explores some of the creative ways in which these teams are structuring stadium deals or plan to engage in potential deals—in connection with lease agreements, deal funding and improvements to the stadium and surrounding area—to generate favorable outcomes for all parties involved in the development projects. As part of the negotiations, it is standard for the parties to agree to a standalone non-relocation agreement, which benefits the respective municipality because it ensures that the team will stay in the new stadium for the life of the stadium, typically 30 years.
1. Tennessee Titans
On April 26, 2023, by a vote of 26-12, the Nashville and Davidson County Metropolitan Council (Metro Council) approved the Tennessee Titans to move forward with plans to build a new stadium with an estimated cost of $2.1 billion. The new facility is expected to be a long-term, significantly improved, revenue-generating asset that will produce tangible benefits for the city of Nashville and its residents.
Out with the Old, in with the New
The first order of business for the Titans was to negotiate a new ground lease. The Metropolitan Government Nashville and Davidson County Sports Authority (Metro Sports Authority) owns the current stadium and its surrounding campus, which combine for a total of about 120 acres of land. As owner, the Metro Sports Authority leased part of the land to the Titans in 1996. Under that lease, the stadium was 100% taxpayer-supported and the Metro Sports Authority was financially responsible for stadium maintenance and upgrades. Venue Solutions Group, an independent consulting firm, estimated that the Metro Sports Authority would be subject to pay at least $1.75 billion in renovation costs over the remaining 17 years on the lease.
The new stadium deal includes a 30-year lease and non-relocation agreement between the Titans and the Metro Sports Authority. The terms of the new lease agreement eliminate the Metro Sports Authority’s over $1.75 billion obligation to maintain and upgrade the stadium. The Titans agreed to waive $32 million owed by the Metro Sports Authority for money spent maintaining the current stadium over the past four years, as well as pay off the remaining $30 million in bonds owed for the current stadium. In addition, the new deal will return control of 66 acres, including the site of the current stadium and adjacent land previously limited solely to parking through 2039, back to the Metro Sports Authority.
The new facility will be funded primarily by the state of Tennessee, the Titans, the tourists visiting the city of Nashville, the spectators attending the games and the revenues generated from the new campus development. Of the $2.1 billion cost, the state of Tennessee will contribute $500 million. The Metro Sports Authority will pitch in by issuing $760 million in revenue bonds. The revenue bonds will be repaid through:
- rent paid by the team;
- a 1% increase in hotel/motel occupancy tax from tourists;
- preexisting ticket tax of $3 per ticket sold that will carry over to the new building;
- 100% of in-stadium sales tax; and
- 50% of sales tax revenue from a newly drawn 130-acre capture zone around the stadium.
The revenue bonds, coupled with the state’s contribution, combine for a total of $1.26 billion, the largest public financing of a stadium development project in U.S. history. The Titans, with the help of a $200 million loan from the NFL, will provide the remaining $840 million of stadium funding as well as any cost overruns. The Titans will utilize personal seat licenses (PSLs, paid licenses that entitle holders to the right to buy season tickets for certain seats in a stadium) to raise money in an effort to alleviate their financial burden.
The new stadium will be built upon the parking lots between the current stadium and Interstate 24. The Titans plan for the stadium to be an enclosed structure featuring a translucent roof, encompassing 1.75 million square feet, with a capacity of approximately 60,000. The advanced stadium design will promote sustainability efforts to minimize waste, net energy and net water status. The stadium will also include a 12,000-square-foot community space that may be utilized to host classes for local schools, career training events and professional seminars. Construction is likely to commence in early-to-mid 2024, with an opening anticipated in 2027. The stadium will host year-round events, including Tennessee State University home football games, Super Bowls, NCAA Final Fours, College Football Playoffs, Wrestlemanias, etc.
Enrich the Campus and Cultivate a Vibrant Community
The campus surrounding the current stadium has not generated significant ancillary development. Antoinette Lee, a member of the Metro Council, states that getting the land back 17 years early will grant the city of Nashville an opportunity to generate new revenue from the property. The city plans to employ locals for construction of the capital project and prioritize local businesses in vendor contracts. The new neighborhood is projected to bring in over a billion dollars to the city over the first 30 years of its development, which could be a significant and material financial upside to taxpayers.
City officials also hope to utilize the returned land to create a new neighborhood set along the Cumberland River. They plan to build parks, civic space, affordable housing and infrastructure, including a new road to expand the transit network. The current stadium will be replaced with a mixed-use central space for community gathering. The space will implement green technology to improve management of storm water. The Titans will contribute an additional $48 million over the life of the lease to the Nashville Needs Impact Fund, a fund directed by the Metro Council to support public education and transit, affordable housing and several other city needs. The Titans intend for their stadium deal to create a platform for the city of Nashville to thrive for decades.
2. Buffalo Bills
On May 4, 2023, the Erie County Legislature unanimously approved the Buffalo Bills to enter into a 30-year lease to construct a new stadium with an estimated cost of $1.54 billion.
Extension of Lease and Agreement for Community Benefits
The current stadium first opened in 1973 and is the fourth-oldest NFL stadium. It was 100% publicly financed, as was standard at the time. The stadium’s lease was originally set to lapse in July 2023. However, based on the new agreement, the lease has been extended to 2028.
The state of New York will own the new stadium. The stadium deal includes a standard non-relocation agreement as well as a community benefits agreement where the Bills will invest at least $3 million a year into the community, adjusted annually by the price index, subject to a maximum annual increase of 2.2%, which will result in over $100 million raised over the term of the lease.
The new facility will primarily be funded by municipal subsidies in the amount of $850 million, including $600 million from New York state and $250 million from Erie County. Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula will be responsible for the remainder as well as any excess costs. The owners plan to utilize PSLs to assist in funding from the team side and reduce their out-of-pockets costs.
The Bills will develop the stadium on a 242-acre site with the help of Populous, an architectural firm, and Legends, a consulting group. The new, open-air stadium will be located in Orchard Park, New York, close to the team’s practice facility.
Although the stadium will not have a dome, it will include a canopy overhang that will cover 65% of the seats to help protect spectators from the poor weather common in western New York in late fall and winter. The canopy will also work alongside a perforated, multidimensional exterior skin of the stadium that creates wind confusion to prevent strong winds from reaching the field.
The stadium will feature state-of-the-art video, new scoreboards, improved sound system, lighting, locker rooms and premium areas, including suites, ledge seats and clubs. It will be the biggest project ever built in western New York. The capital project will include demolition of the current stadium, construction of a 75,000-square-foot ancillary building and related site development. Construction began on June 5, 2023, and completion is scheduled for July 2026 in order to have the stadium ready for the NFL’s 2026 regular season.
The reduced seating capacity and introduction of PSLs for season tickets at the new Bills stadium have caused some public backlash. The current stadium holds over 70,000 seats for spectators, roughly 63,000 of which belong to season ticket holders. By contrast, the new stadium will have a capacity of about 60,000 seats. In addition, the Bills anticipate limiting the new season tickets to about 55,000 seats, or 90%-91% of the total capacity, to leave room for individual game ticket purchasers. This suggests that not all current season ticket holders will be able to get season tickets in the new facility.
Despite the reduced seating capacity, the new stadium, expected to cover about 1.35 million square feet (1.5 times the size of the original), will have extra space which the architects will use to build deeper, wider and more comfortable seats and larger, more spacious concourses. The stadium will also consist of stacked seating to make it 50 feet higher. Scott Radecic, a former Bills linebacker and one of the founders of Populous, states that, from a design standpoint, the goal for the new stadium is to be more “intimate and intimidating” and provide “amazing sightlines” to capture “Instagrammable moments.” Lastly, the fewer seats will lower operating costs, which will result in greater profits that may be allocated to create more fan experiences and other enhanced stadium amenities.
Furthermore, not only will the prices of season tickets likely be higher at the new stadium, but existing season ticket holders will first have to pay PSLs for the opportunity to buy the tickets. Based on a survey sent to Bills season ticket holders last year, the potential prices of the required PSLs will start at $500 for reserved seats and go as high as $16,500 for premium seats. Existing season ticket holders will have first priority. All others interested may pay a $150 per seat deposit to be placed on a waitlist for a chance to secure up to six season tickets. While the seat deposits are fully refundable, each deposit will be subject to an additional, nonrefundable $3 processing fee.
However, PSLs have become a standard mechanism for teams to generate revenue to help pay for the stadiums. Since 2009, all nine of the NFL franchises that have constructed new stadiums have utilized PSLs; 20 of the 32 NFL franchises currently require some form of PSLs. Nevertheless, Ron Raccuia, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Bills, addressed PSL concerns by explaining that the team’s management is cognizant of the situation and committed to ensuring that fans will not be priced out of the marketplace. Raccuia has reassured fans that the Bills will likely have “the lowest PSLs of any new stadium built since 2009.” As an accommodation to ticket purchasers, the PSLs do not have to be paid up front, but may be divided as part of a payment plan. Raccuia further explains that the PSLs will only be subject to a one-time fee as they will be perpetual and need not be renewed. The PSLs may also have added benefits such as preferred parking, early access and exclusive food and beverage options.
3. Chicago Bears
On February 15, 2023, the Chicago Bears purchased a 326-acre property in Arlington Heights (formerly the Arlington International Racecourse) for $197.2 million to secure the potential opportunity for a $5 billion development project of a new stadium, entertainment district and residential quarter. The purchase is no guarantee that the land will be developed, but it is an important next step in the ongoing evaluation of the development opportunity. The Bears admit that there is still a tremendous amount of due diligence to be done to determine if constructing a new stadium is financially feasible. The village of Arlington Heights has hired its own expert consultant to review the economic projections as well.
The Bears have a lease for their current stadium in Chicago which lapses in 2033. However, the lease permits the Bears to exit the agreement as of 2026 by paying $90 million to the city of Chicago. Furthermore, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority alleges that Chicago taxpayers still owe $640 million on bonds issued in 2002 to pay for the stadium’s renovations from two decades ago, including more than $250 million in interest alone.
The Bears are interested in pursuing a private-public partnership to ensure an economically feasible investment. They do not seek taxpayer funds to help construct the stadium itself, but do request that local governments provide financial assistance to develop other areas of the property. The team hopes to secure property tax certainty and public funds for necessary public infrastructure (i.e., roads for better traffic flow and water drainage for residents throughout the area).
The Bears plan to construct an enclosed, state-of-the-art stadium to protect the team and fans from the Windy City’s infamous winter weather. Aside from the stadium, the team envisions developing shops, restaurants, parks, gyms, office space, hotels and residential buildings in the surrounding area. The potential ancillary development of Arlington Heights will thus include a multipurpose entertainment, commercial, retail and housing district that will provide considerable economic benefits to Cook County, the Chicago metropolitan area (Chicagoland), and the state of Illinois. If the stadium deal were to proceed, it would be one of the largest development projects in Midwest history. The entire project may take a decade to complete, including construction of the stadium and ancillary development.
An Uncertain Future
Cook County’s tax assessor reassessed the value of the Bears’ recently acquired property earlier this year, setting the value at $197 million. This new assessment would raise the 2022 tax bill to $16 million, a significant increase from the $2.7 million paid in 2021 before the racetrack was closed.
Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI), the former owner of the Arlington International Racecourse and the party responsible for the 2022 tax bill, filed an appeal to the Cook County Board of Review, a three-person panel, to overrule the assessor’s decision. The team, also unhappy with the decision as they will bear the tax burden the following year, argues that the assessment of the unoccupied property is almost six times the $33.5 million value the property held when it was operating as an income-producing racetrack. CDI used a calculation method that takes into account the depreciation of buildings to request that the land be worth $37.3 million, while the three local school districts surrounding the 326-acre property advocated for a $150 million valuation as they are in a position to benefit from property tax revenue.
On June 1, 2023, CDI, the school districts and the Cook County Board of Review reached a settlement setting the property value at $95 million and establishing the tax bill for 2022 to be in the amount of $7.9 million. Given that the settlement is only for the 2022 tax bill, the Bears will need to renegotiate the property value if they would like to bring down the cost of the tax bill for the following year.
The Bears have stated that they will not proceed with a stadium deal without first settling the property tax battle. Kevin Warren, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Bears, says that the team is not demanding “a handout,” it merely asks for “certainty and fairness.” Once the team receives clarity on the tax matter, it will conduct economic and traffic impact studies. Assuming the reports come back positive, or reasonable mitigating measures are identified, the team will then get the ball rolling on a potential stadium deal. Otherwise, the Bears will turn to other municipalities in Chicagoland to discuss new opportunities for potential stadium sites.
Meanwhile, the village of Arlington Heights approved permits for phases one and two of the demolition of the property. As a result, despite the deadlock between the Bears and Cook County, the Bears have commenced demolition of the site. Thus, while the future of Arlington Heights is uncertain, the Bears are still moving forward with their plans.
If the Bears manage to move forward with a stadium deal in Arlington Heights, the development project would intend to serve as a regional hub for entertainment, shopping and community events, while also providing year-round commercial and residential real estate opportunities. The potential construction of the stadium alone is projected to create more than 48,000 jobs, generate $9.4 billion in economic impact for Chicagoland and provide $3.9 billion in new labor income to workers across the region. The completed, multipurpose development project could create more than 9,750 long-term jobs, generate $1.4 billion in annual economic impact and provide $601 million in annual labor income to workers. Therefore, a stadium deal for the Bears could be a sound investment resulting in significant economic benefits for the community.
4. Washington Commanders
On July 20, 2023, former Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder sold the team for $6.05 billion to a group of investors led by billionaire Josh Harris, the founder and managing general partner of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. The $6.05 billion deal set a new record for the most expensive sale in NFL history, breaking the previous record of $4.65 billion, which was established on June 7, 2022, by the sale of the Denver Broncos to the Walter-Penner Family Ownership Group. (Harris was among the bidders for the Broncos last year.) The deal includes the current stadium located in Landover, Maryland, and the team’s practice facility in Ashburn, Virginia. The new owners hope for a fresh start as they look to build a new stadium.
Under New Management
The Harris team is eager to put the Commanders back on the NFL’s map of esteemed contenders. During Snyder’s tumultuous tenure, the combination of on-field losses, off-the-field scandals and an aging stadium drove the fan base away from its historic diehard support. Home attendance has ranked near the bottom of the league for the last few seasons. Nevertheless, Forbes ranked the Commanders as the eighth most valuable team in sports, ahead of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and the Premier League’s Manchester United Football Club. This ranking reflects the franchise’s potential thanks to a strong history and market, along with the NFL’s revenue-sharing model and the windfall provided by the league’s media rights deals.
Potential New Stadium Opportunity
The Commanders have been looking for a potential new stadium opportunity for several years. Team president Jason Wright has stated that one of the primary focuses of the franchise is to secure a stadium site. With new management in place, there is more optimism that a stadium deal can be struck. The team has reportedly been considering several sites across Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.
The Commanders are contracted to play at FedEx Field in Summerfield, Maryland, through the 2027 season. One option is to renew the contract and renovate the facility, as the state of Maryland has committed $400 million to redevelop the area around the stadium. Alternatively, the team could move 15 miles away to Oxon Cove Park, a chunk of federal land located across from the MGM Casino and National Harbor area in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Previous concerns about the land were that it is not near a Metrorail station and environmental restrictions may limit potential development. Nevertheless, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has recently proposed a multibillion-dollar expansion plan that includes a station at the National Harbor area, which could once again attract attention to the Oxon Cove site.
D.C. could also lure the franchise back to its old stomping grounds at the site of RFK Stadium, where the franchise played from 1961 to 1996. The Commanders are lobbying federal legislators to give D.C. control over the land where the stadium lies, which the federal government owns and leases to D.C.’s Sports and Entertainment Authority. The 190-acre site has the potential to be used for multiple purposes, including housing and retail.
Virginia offers several options as well, one of which is conveniently located just 10 miles away from the team’s current practice facility.
A new and improved facility could help boost the franchise value of the Commanders and give owners a better return on their investment. Wright states that a new venue will change the fortune of the franchise not only in revenue growth but also in overall fan experience.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars
The city of Jacksonville received approval to spend $121 million in 1993 to renovate an old stadium to establish a home for the Jacksonville Jaguars as they joined the NFL as an expansion team. The Jaguars first welcomed fans to the city-owned stadium for a home game on August 18, 1995. Since then, there have been several small-scale touch-ups to recondition the stadium and stay current with technological advancements.
The Jaguars and the City of Jacksonville began to discuss long-term plans for the stadium in 2016. They hired engineers in July 2020 to conduct an assessment to determine the renovation costs of the existing stadium versus the construction costs to build an entirely new one. The assessment suggested that it would be more cost effective to renovate the stadium. Mark Lamping, president of the Jacksonville Jaguars, states that of the $2 billion total estimated cost, stadium improvements alone would cost about $1.4 billion, while constructing a new stadium would require at least an additional $1 billion. Once the team and the city decided to renovate, they hired the Sports + Recreation + Entertainment division of HOK, a global firm specializing in design, architecture, engineering and planning, to help bring the stadium concept to life. If the plans to renovate the stadium come to fruition, the stadium will become the most expensive public building in Jacksonville history.
Extension of Lease and Agreement to Development Project
Jaguars owner Shad Khan and the city of Jacksonville are willing to share the expenses of the potential development project so long as they can agree on the terms to extend the team’s lease to play at the stadium, renovate the stadium and develop the surrounding area.
The Jaguars’ current lease will lapse after the NFL’s 2029-30 season, unless it is extended. Even if the team and the city agree to a new lease, the NFL and three quarters of all franchise owners must approve. Lamping states that negotiations for the lease will occur simultaneously with negotiations for the development project as they go hand in hand. There is no need for the lease extension without an agreement to the project and vice-versa.
According to a proposed memorandum of understanding between the team and the city, the team would like to begin full-time construction in February 2026, with completion anticipated in time for the 2028 season. During this two-year period, the Jaguars will have to play home games elsewhere, which Lamping states will cost about $125 million. Alternatively, the Jaguars could continue to play at the stadium while it is under partial construction, but then the time frame for completion would be extended to four years. Moreover, under this four-year renovation plan, there would be limited capacity for spectators and the bottom-line cost would increase by an additional $190 million. Thus, the alternate stadium option is more efficient in terms of both cost and time.
The Jaguars’ front office will directly negotiate the details about the development project with Donna Deegan, the recently elected mayor of Jacksonville. Deegan states that the Jaguars’ concept for the development project is “a beautiful vision for economic revitalization.” If and when she signs off on the project, ultimate approval will rest in the hands of the 19 members of the Jacksonville City Council.
Assuming the Jaguars and the city of Jacksonville agree to a lease extension and the development project, they intend to split the costs 50-50. Based on the proposed memorandum, the team will primarily be responsible for the development of the surrounding area (66.7%) and the city will primarily be responsible for the renovations of the stadium (85%). A separate investment summary breaks down the potential allocation of the expenses in terms of dollars. On the higher end of the calculation, the total estimated cost for the entire project will be $2.068 billion. $1.4 billion will be spent on renovating the stadium and $668 million will be spent on developing the surrounding area. The Jaguars will pay about $466 million for the renovations and $568 million for the development. By contrast, the city of Jacksonville will pay about $934 million for the renovations and $100 million for the development. When added altogether, the respective calculations show that the team and the city will each be responsible to pay about $1.034 billion for the project.
Improvements to the Stadium and the Surrounding Area
The Jaguars’ renovation plan is to gut most of the existing stadium for a complete overhaul. Bill Johnson, a design principal at HOK, states that the plan is to “keep the bones and replace everything else” in an effort to build a reimaged, multipurpose entertainment venue. The redesigned stadium would have a standard capacity of approximately 62,000 seats for Jaguars spectators with an ability to expand up to 71,500 seats for concerts and other entertainment events. Spectators would enter the stadium by walking through a “subtropical Floridian park” to the main concourse. The 360-degree concourse fully circles around the stadium, is four times wider than the current one and provides extensive views of the downtown district and the neighboring St. Johns River, as it would be 30 feet above ground. The planned concourse will feature unique experiences such as interactive social bars and cuisine native to Jacksonville. The stadium will also offer new digital technology to modernize its appearance and improve game day experiences.
The Jaguars convey that they will construct the stadium to be sustainable. The stadium’s exterior will be wrapped around a “first-of-its-kind mirrored material” that will provide an energy-efficient façade. Although the open-air stadium will not have air conditioning, the façade will have open corners to create pockets of airflow to function as a passive cooling system throughout the stadium. Due to the hot and wet weather in northern Florida, there will also be a large canopy, which should reduce heat retention by 70%, lower temperatures by about 10 to 15 degrees, and protect spectators from precipitation. Furthermore, the stadium will comprise of a “roof membrane” that will act similar to the anti-reflective lens coating on sunglasses to scatter the reflected light throughout the interior of the stadium.
Furthermore, the development of the area surrounding the stadium is intended to create thousands of jobs, cause immense civic pride among local residents and attract a vast array of new tourists. The Jaguars expect that the development project, coupled with the ongoing enrichment of the Jacksonville Shipyards (an endeavor meant to create a marina, restore public parks and introduce new restaurants, residences, hotels and office buildings), will serve as encouraging momentum to develop the neighborhoods to the east and west of the downtown district. Thus, the development project intends to secure a promising future for the Jaguars and vastly improve the economic strength of the city of Jacksonville.
6. Cincinnati Bengals
Paycor Stadium has been home to the Cincinnati Bengals since 2000. Ohio’s Hamilton County owns the stadium and leases it to the Bengals. The lease is set to lapse in 2026. As a result, the county commissioners will soon need to renegotiate the lease terms.
The commissioners are deciding whether to renovate the stadium or build a new one. They have expressed a desire to utilize the renovated or brand new stadium for entertainment events other than NFL games and hope to better integrate the stadium with Cincinnati’s downtown area.
The Bengals and Hamilton County have hired Gensler Sports, a global architecture, design and planning firm, to conduct a capital assessment. In May 2022, the firm identified that basic repairs for fixing steel rails and ramps, replacing seats and upgrading electric and plumbing systems would cost at least $493 million. Other upgrades such as developing new luxury lounges, high-end food and drink, and new signs and scoreboards would cost an additional $200 million. The commissioners have requested that the firm generate a report by December 2023 comparing the costs for renovation of the current stadium versus construction of a new one. The report should help in the decision-making process.
NFL franchises are making strategic moves to engage in stadium deals in order to maximize profits, provide fans with immersive experiences and improve the economic health of the surrounding communities. When structured correctly, stadium deals can generate positive results for team owners, players and fans, as well as public officials and residents.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are those of the authors. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
This is an expanded version of the article originally published in Sports Litigation Alert (republished with permission).