Column: Are billion-dollar-plus stadiums in the futures of more NFL cities?

Atlanta is latest to get expensive super venue

It was an impressive weekend for Atlanta’s shiny new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The $1.5 billion retractable-domed uber venue hosted its first Major League Soccer contest on Saturday and set a U.S. soccer attendance record with 70,000 fans. That was followed on Sunday night by its first regular season NFL game -- a nationally televised matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the hometown Falcons.

Anyone watching had to be impressed by the space-age design, giant falcon statue, 360-degree halo video board and many other amazing amenities. But for cities like Cincinnati that were part of an NFL-wide new stadium push in the 1990s and early 2000s, the unveiling of Mercedes-Benz stadium should be ominous.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium's video board is a 360-degree halo around the opening of its closeable roof. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The stakes are being raised around the NFL when it comes to stadiums and it’s likely only a matter of time before other franchises want the same.

Atlanta’s gaudy new home -- which kind of looks like the Legion of Doom’s swamp headquarters -- isn’t alone in the palatial stadium arms race.  Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones got the ball rolling on billion-dollar-plus digs when he opened AT&T Stadium in 2009. The New York Jets’ and Giants’ MetLife Stadium opened at a year later at a cost of $1.6 billion, San Francisco 49ers’  $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara opened in 2014 and the Minnesota Vikings christened the $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis in 2016.

More are on the way. The Oakland Raiders will move to Las Vegas in the coming years and will play in a stadium estimated to cost $1.9 billion. The Chargers and Rams -- which have left San Diego and St. Louis, respectively, in the past two years -- are awaiting the building of their shared home in Los Angeles. That project, which will include an entertainment venue, retail, residential and other development on 298 acres, is expected to cost $2.6 billion.

And while they aren't quite as grandiose, a lot of other teams have gotten much fancier new homes in recent years, including the Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals and Houston Texans.

The mega palaces are being paid for in a number of ways -- seat licenses, stadium naming rights, hotel taxes, casino revenue and owner contributions among them. But in most cases, public funds or subsidies are a big chunk.

So what does this mean for Cincinnati?

Maybe nothing.

The trend could curtail as prices get too astronomical and there are fewer cities to offer to take a team off another’s hands.

AT&T Stadium was the first in the NFL to cost over $1 billion. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

There are several cities with stadiums of age and structure similar to Paul Brown Stadium -- Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Nashville, Baltimore and Charlotte being examples. Are there enough San Antonios out there to swipe all these teams if franchises want greener pastures? Are places like St. Louis and San Diego eager to get back into the NFL? Maybe. Maybe not.

But as the NFL wants to be more international, it might not be San Antonio or St. Louis that should worry cities, but rather Mexico City, Toronto or London.

Bengals ownership has made no overtures about wanting a new stadium. They have a lease through 2026, and it’s fair to say that lease has treated them well. But to get Paul Brown Stadium the team did resort to suggesting they’d move and voters responded by agreeing to foot the bill via a Hamilton County sales tax. We’re only nine years away from the end of that lease and surely more super stadiums will pop up during that time.

The owners' argument will likely be that they can’t compete without the same state-of-the-art facilities that other teams have. The luxury boxes are more luxurious, the seat license fees are more expensive, the video boards are more enveloping. And the poor little half-billion-dollar, 25-year-old stadiums are just worthless dumps that can’t keep the team on an even playing field.

If fans, voters and elected officials say a team doesn't win enough to warrant such a purchase, the teams will say they don’t win because they don’t have proper facilities. The owners will ignore the fact that the municipally owned Green Bay Packers have won four Super Bowls while playing in ancient -- though upgraded -- Lambeau Field.

It’s hard to imagine that Cincinnati would go for a billion-dollar stadium if it were proposed, barring a Bill Belichickian run of success by the Bengals. It would be a hard sell with such a bad taste in voters’ mouths over the Paul Brown Stadium lease and no wins in the playoffs for over a quarter-century.

It should be noted that moving a team is not a cheap venture either. The Raiders must pay a reported $378 million relocation fee to the NFL, and the Rams and Chargers have even more astronomical bills -- a reported $645 million each to move to Los Angeles. Those hefty price tags might deter other franchises from holding cities hostage for new facilities.

Fans enter the gates at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

One option teams could pursue would be requesting upgrades to existing stadiums rather than building new ones. The competition card could be played without holding a city up for billions. But it’s hard to imagine those 2000-era stadiums being able to accommodate video boards like those in Dallas and Atlanta, and they’re not conducive to adding retractable roofs to allow for hosting Super Bowls, Final Fours and other big indoor events.

Again, to be clear, Bengals ownership hasn't made any suggestions that they are demanding a new stadium and it’s unfair to assume they will.

But it’s hard to believe that the trend will not continue and billionaire owners around the NFL will want to one up the latest, greatest, obscenely expensive playgrounds in the league. The question is, will communities just say no like San Diego did? Or will they be comfortable seeing the San Antonio Ravens, London Panthers or Mexico City Bengals on TV every Sunday? Time will tell.

Dave Niinemets is a Digital Enterprise Editor at WCPO.com and oversees sports content for the digital team. This column represents his opinion and does not reflect the collective opinion of WCPO - 9 On Your Side.

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