Paul Brown Stadium: How much taxpayers spend on upgrades may hinge on if Bengals keep winning

Experts say fans will spend more to keep Bengals
Paul Brown Stadium
Posted at 6:11 AM, May 17, 2022

CINCINNATI — Paul Brown Stadium will likely get an upgrade in the next few years. But how much taxpayers are willing to spend on those renovations may depend on how well the Cincinnati Bengals perform this season.

The excitement over the AFC champs’ coming season began last week when the NFL announced that the Bengals will play five prime-time games, the maximum allowed by the league.

According to experts, the Bengals’ historic trip to the Super Bowl last year is already impacting how taxpayers feel about spending more money to keep the team happy.

“If the Bengals have another really good season next year, then there is going to be pressure from the citizens of the county to say, we need to do whatever we need to do to keep this team,” said Joe Cobbs, professor of sports business at Northern Kentucky University. “If, for whatever reason, the Bengals go back to being sort of less successful … that’s certainly going to hurt their negotiating.”

The Bengals’ lease with Hamilton County expires in 2026 and negotiations over expensive stadium upgrades have already begun.

The Bengals and the county hired Gensler Sports to evaluate Paul Brown Stadium. The architecture and design firm revealed the results of its capital assessment during an April 26 meeting. It called for extensive repairs over the next two decades to the stadium, which at age 22 is considered middle-aged by NFL standards.

The price tag for those repairs is $493 million (in 2021 dollars), according to the final report and county officials.

But WCPO obtained two draft copies of the report, from November 2021 and January 2022 through a public records request. The January draft report shows a significantly higher stadium repair cost at $566 million dollars.

That means $72 million in repairs was cut from the report before it was released to the public.

A WCPO analysis reveals that tens of millions in structural repairs to corroded steel frames and connectors at the stadium were cut from the final capital assessment report, as well as repairs to concrete, sealant, walls and stairs. While the largest spending increase in the final report was for seating bowl architecture.

Corrosion at Paul Brown Stadium.
Corrosion at Paul Brown Stadium.

In a statement to WCPO, a county spokesperson wrote, “The ongoing capital assessment since the January draft resulted in certain projects being refined, sometimes eliminated due to work currently in process at PBS or determined to be duplicative in scope or added to the list of potential projects as part of the final recommendation.”

The capital assessment called for repairs that largely focused on necessity: repairing and painting steel connections and frames on pedestrian ramps and stairs; fixing concrete stair landings; replacing stadium seats and light fixtures; improving Wi-Fi connectivity; upgrading electric and plumbing; and stopping frequent water leaks.

That’s not counting the potential $200 million more it may cost for future upgrades like mega suites, luxury lounges, high-end food and drink, easier stadium entry, new signs and scoreboards fans across the nation may be coming to expect as a regular part of their game day experience.

That will be the focus of a separate master plan that Gensler intends to release later this year.

Kevin Reichard, editor and publisher of Football Stadium Digest, said he believes it may be better in the long run to replace Paul Brown Stadium with a new stadium, rather than invest in renovations and upgrades that may eventually add up to the same price.

Chipped concrete at Paul Brown Stadium
Chipped concrete at Paul Brown Stadium

“I’m a little surprised that no one has brought up the possibility of a new stadium,” Reichard said. “You’re seeing other cities like Nashville looking at the renovation figure and saying gosh, we’re already more than halfway to the cost of a new stadium … so at what point do you throw good money after bad. When do you look at a new facility?”

Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus said the county will negotiate with the Bengals as to what is a reasonable amount to invest in a stadium "to make sure that it’s up to snuff for the fans and for the players.”

The county will look for funding from the state of Ohio, the Bengals and possibly an NFL loan. But ultimately how much the county spends on stadium renovations, and possibly a new stadium, may come down to taxpayer willingness.

“Because ultimately the taxpayers are paying the bulk of the renovation. They paid the bulk of the building of the stadium to begin with,” Driehaus said. “I think we owe it to the taxpayers to create a really good deal that benefits them.”

Most, if not all, economic studies show taxpayer spending on sports stadiums is a bad investment compared to using the money for education or other infrastructure. But Cobbs said those studies don’t account for the intangible: civic pride and fan excitement.

Paul Brown Stadium
Paul Brown Stadium

“There’s a social aspect …to having a professional sports team, particularly a successful professional sports team. We saw that over the past year - how excited the city was, how much it brought people together, and how much pride in the city the Bengals run created,” Cobbs said. “So that has to be taken into account as well.”

Rob Baade is a national expert on stadiums and a professor at Lake Forest College who has given thousands of media interviews on the topic over his career. Yet he still can’t explain why cities and counties continue to embrace professional sports team stadiums despite overwhelming economic evidence that proves they are bad investments.

“Maybe economists haven’t done as good of a job explaining things to the public. Or maybe they don’t care,” Baade said. “Maybe when push comes to shove fans are going to say, ‘Well, whatever it costs to keep our team we’re willing to do.”

Perhaps the answer is there are simply more sports fans than economists, Baade said chuckling.

Commissioner Stephanie Summerow Dumas said she expects more fans at Paul Brown Stadium this season given the team's recent success and the prime-time game schedule. But she said she will make fiscally responsible decisions about the venue’s future, even if residents support building a new stadium.

“You’re talking about billions of dollars then. I want to make sure the residents get their input in this process. It’s their place,” Dumas said. “And to get as much public input as possible and to make sure we’re going into the direction they want to go.”

The price for renovations at Paul Brown will continue to rise when the master plan is released later this year, and county officials will have to decide their next steps, guided largely by public sentiment.

“I’m anxiously awaiting the master plan because I’m not naïve enough to think the numbers won’t go up,” Dumas said.

For his part, Cobbs thinks the timing of the Bengals negotiations with the county, and the release of the capital assessment with a $493 million price tag, couldn’t be better for the team … as long as they keep winning.

“If they didn’t have the season they just had, this would be much more contentious,” said Cobb. “The Bengals can either benefit from that, as they are currently, or if they have a bad season next year, that could actually work against them.”

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