CINCINNATI — Hamilton County taxpayers have spent more than $920 million since 2000 as part of a deal to build and operate Paul Brown Stadium.
That tab is about to get bigger.
The county is expected to start paying for some of the Cincinnati Bengals’ game-day operating expenses — a new cost of nearly $2.7 million in 2017 that will grow each year.
And the Bengals last month requested to meet with county officials to review the stadium’s needs.
At this rate, by the time 2026 rolls around and the 26-year lease between the team and the county expires, the county will have spent more than $1.1 billion on the deal for the Bengals to play in Cincinnati.
“Is it worth it? I don’t know,” Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel said. “My gut says it probably hasn’t generated the rate of return on investment that other projects do. From a civic pride standpoint, people are excited about (the Bengals). You’ve got some intangibles that you can’t really put a price tag on.”
The Bengals contend the team and stadium have been a valuable part of redeveloping Cincinnati's downtown.
"Paul Brown Stadium (and Great American Ball Park) were the critical pieces to the puzzle that created the 'Rebirth of the Riverfront' in the early 2000s and have led to the reality that we now call 'The Banks,'" Bengals management wrote in a statement to WCPO. "Without these two pieces we would still be left with an undeveloped riverfront, an out-of-date and dangerous Fort Washington Way, continued parking shortages for downtown office workers, and likely no professional sports in downtown Cincinnati."
Paying for Paul Brown
Building Paul Brown Stadium cost the county $455 million and taxpayers will spend roughly $258 million to pay the interest on the loans that financed the stadium's construction.
Other expenses over the years have contributed to the cost of keeping the Bengals in Cincinnati since the team threatened to leave the city two decades ago.
Simply maintaining the stadium — keeping the lights on with utilities, for example, an insurance policy and a county-employed team of 25 that is responsible for plumbing, electricity, groundskeeping as well as around-the-clock security — costs the county roughly $7.5 million every year. A part of that cost also includes an administrative office that manages both the baseball field and the football stadium.
That’s added up to $113 million since 2000, not including this year’s season. The county has paid for the expenses through a combination of sales and casino tax money, cash from vendors who rent space, and the 2011 sale of a county-owned hospital.
The size of the county's stadium operations team is comparable to other NFL stadiums, said Joe Feldkamp, the county's stadium manager.
On top of that, the taxpayers deposit $1 million every year into a stadium improvement fund that has paid for upgrades such as a $1 million carpeting job and $3 million to install Wi-Fi in the stadium. Much of that money, though, has been sucked up fixing leaky cracks in the stadium’s structure, Feldkamp said. Roughly $1.8 million sits in that account currently.
“Stadiums are notorious for leaking,” Feldkamp said. “It’s a constant effort. We’ve allocated a number every year toward those efforts.”
The county has also spent a combined $25 million in the last two years to install a new scoreboard and for a $14 million, ongoing effort to make the stadium more energy-efficient.
By comparison, Great American Ball Park, used by the Cincinnati Reds, has cost the county $621 million to build and operate since it first opened. Hamilton County taxpayers agreed to pay for the construction of the ballpark 20 years ago, in the same vote they promised to pay for the construction and maintenance of Paul Brown Stadium.
The Cost to Clean Up After 65,000 People?
Soon taxpayers could be on the hook to pay for more costs associated with the county-owned football stadium.
Right now, the Bengals pay for their game-day costs, including stadium security and cleanup once fans go home. That changes next year, when the county becomes responsible for paying the Bengals back for some of those costs.
“Can you imagine what it costs to clean 65,000 people worth of food and drink and mess?” Feldkamp said.
The county and Bengals' 1997 lease agreement imagines those costs would be $2.67 million in 2017, when taxpayers begin shouldering some game-day expenses. The lease also requires the county to reimburse the Bengals an extra 5 percent for those costs every year. By 2025, the county will be paying $3.9 million in one season for the game-day expenses.
It's unclear if the county's yearly payment will actually cover all of the team's game-day costs.
“I don’t know what the game-day costs are,” Feldkamp said. “I would guess the Bengals' costs are greater than (the county payments will be) on a game day.”
The county hasn’t determined how it will pay for those new costs, and County Commissioner Todd Portune has questioned if the county should have to pay for the expenses at all.
What the county will pay the Bengals for game-day costs could become complicated. The lease agreement calls for the county to reimburse the team “for any and all expenses of any nature whatsoever” on game day. But, that same lease sets an annual limit on how much the county will pay.
“Honestly, the language of the lease is an issue, no matter what clause we’re talking about,” Monzel said. “We’re constantly trying to figure it out. I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion and interpretation and coming to some conclusion to what that clause means in the lease.”
Bengals management said in a statement they believe the county should reimburse the team only for the capped payment amount listed in the lease.
More to Come?
Last month, the Bengals’ management wrote the county asking for a formal meeting to discuss future enhancements at the stadium.
“Given the current landscape for NFL facilities, we think it makes sense for us to meet, survey the status of Paul Brown Stadium, and consider stadium elements around the NFL that could be considered,” the letter, penned by Bengals Vice President Troy Blackburn, says.
Monzel thinks the sit-down will allow the county to examine any infrastructure issues with the stadium and also discuss the team’s possible wish list.
He believes the Bengals will be open to negotiate how other upgrades to keep the stadium competitive will be paid.
Portune, a longtime critic of the stadium deal who sued the Bengals over the issue more than a decade ago, wouldn’t speculate as to what the team might ask for.
“My advice is that everybody needs to calm down — the Bengals haven’t asked for a thing," Portune said. "They haven’t demanded a thing. They haven’t threatened a thing. Let’s see what this is all about before anybody needs to react to it.”
County officials are working to schedule the meeting with the Bengals now that a new commissioner has been seated, but most who will be involved in the negotiations said they’re not concerned about demands the team might make.
Experts say they should be worried.
The county is required to make stadium upgrades once 14 other NFL stadiums have a certain enhancement — that’s how the Bengals got a new scoreboard and Wi-Fi installed last year in the stadium on the county’s dime. And, the Bengals’ latest discussion with the county will look at how Paul Brown Stadium stacks up against other stadiums around the country, according to the contract.
The setup encourages the Bengals to think of upgrades the county might need to pay for in the stadium, said Roger Noll, a Stanford University professor who studies publicly-financed stadium deals.
“You’d probably think of whole lot of stuff you need,” Noll said.
Other teams across the country are giving the Bengals plenty of ideas for things the stadium might need.
Fans of the San Francisco 49ers can order food from an in-seat app installed in the new $1.2 billion stadium, which was mostly paid for with private funds. The New York Giants have a virtual reality zone for fans in their stadium, completely financed privately. Some teams are in the process of building a sports bar section in their stadium, said Mark Rosentraub, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in sports management.
The game-day experience is changing rapidly to attract young sports fans, said Rosentraub, who has brokered roughly 20 deals between public governments and sports teams to build new complexes.
The Bengals, he guesses, will face pressure to catch up if they want the county-owned stadium to continue to bring in fans.
“There’s a lot of experimentation going on,” Rosentraub said. “When the at-home experience becomes so phenomenal, one has to offer something extra to get people to come to the stadium.”
The team’s letter to the county alludes to some of the upgrades other NFL stadiums are making.
“Those years have also seen significant changes in stadium design and development around the country, with new facilities under construction in Minneapolis and Atlanta, and major enhancements undertaken in most of the NFL stadiums that opened 15-20 years ago,” the letter reads.
The Bengals' sent their letter at a time when three NFL teams are considering exits from their home cities for a new stadium.
NFL owners approved last week a request from the St. Louis Rams and the San Diego Chargers to relocate to Los Angeles. The Oakland Raiders also were considering the same move but withdrew their request. The St. Louis Rams are ending their lease agreement with St. Louis early, and leaving the city with a pile of debt to pay off on their old stadium.
St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke warned that any NFL team that plays in St. Louis is doomed to "financial ruin" because the city of 318,000 people doesn't have the fan base to support three professional sports teams.
The Bengals say it's tougher for teams to make such big revenues in smaller markets.
"We work hard to maximize our local revenues but will always lag behind larger markets," the team said in a statement to WCPO.
Mid-size cities like Cincinnati — population 297,000 and home to two professional sports teams — or St. Louis often have a disadvantage in winning negotiations with NFL teams, Noll said.
“There are more cities who want NFL teams than there are NFL teams,” Noll said. “There’s always another sucker. If anything ever happened that there was a big, public, nasty dispute ... the team would have half-a-dozen cities waiting in the wings.”
In a statement, Bengals management said consideration of a future agreement with the county would be "premature." The team also said it does not have "any pre-conceived ideas for improvements" it plans to bring to their discussions with county leaders.
Feldkamp, the county's stadium manager, said he hasn’t discussed any upgrades for the stadium with the team. He added that the relationship between the Bengals and the county has improved in recent years, especially with last year’s deal between the two. In that agreement, the Bengals agreed to forget a contract restriction that limits the height of buildings at The Banks, the development near where the stadium is located. In exchange, the county promised to pay for Wi-Fi installation and the new scoreboard.
“We’ve got two big-ticket items that have just been completed. What’s on the horizon is yet to be determined,” Feldkamp said. “To my knowledge, they don’t have anything in mind."