|49ers coach Jim Harbaugh speaks at a ceremony for the team's forthcoming "smart stadium" in Santa Clara.|
The way you consume your football, and sports in general, is much different today than it was a decade ago. In 2002, most people used a wire to connect to the Internet, barely anyone had HDTV at home, and fantasy sports was just starting to scratch the surface of its potential. There was no NFL Network. Or MLB Network. Or NHL Network. Or dozens of other options existing today.
But here's what was going on back then: a stadium revolution. In the five-season period from 1995-99, eight new NFL stadiums swung open their doors. And the rate only increased at the turn of the century, with nine pro football palaces being christened between 2000 and '03.
Things have slowed since. The 10 years from 2004-13 will bring only four new stadiums. Part of it is that fewer teams need that kind of upgrade anymore. Part is the absence of NFL-sponsored financing in the last CBA. It's simply harder to get those shovels in the ground than it used to be.
The San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings just finished decade-long efforts to get their outdated digs replaced, and are scheduled to begin play in new stadiums in 2014 and 2016, respectively. The Los Angeles void has yet to be filled. And a handful of teams are now looking at the future -- with even facilities built 10 years ago needing to be updated -- and seeing an increasingly bleak outlook on the future of NFL homes.
"Stadiums have gotten more expensive, because they have generally gotten bigger and more sophisticated," said Eric Grubman, the NFL's executive vice president of ventures and business operations. "A big part of that sophistication is in technology, and it's also in amenities. It's all more expensive. And the expectations of fans and others using the stadium -- sponsors, corporations -- are higher than what they were 25 years ago."
The last two NFL stadiums to open, MetLife Stadium and Cowboys Stadium, cost $1.6 billion and $1.15 billion, respectively, which is a lot to pay by any measure, particularly with the three clubs involved contributing more than $2.5 billion in private funding.
But those numbers become even more eye-popping compared with what those teams' peers paid. The four stadiums that turn 10 this year -- Detroit's Ford Field ($430 million), New England's Gillette Stadium ($325 million), Seattle's CenturyLink Field ($430 million) and Houston's Reliant Stadium ($352 million) -- cost less combined than the newest one (MetLife Stadium).
"If you think about how much Lincoln Financial Field and Gillette Stadium cost, they were in the $300 millions. And it's like these things skipped 5, 6, 7 and 8, and went straight to $1 billion," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a consulting firm that works with clubs on stadiums. "First of all, you're building way too much into these stadiums. They've become edifices to the glory of the architect or the team owner. Second, the restrictions and the economics of developing a stadium are now cockeyed."
The first point may seem like a shot at Dallas owner Jerry Jones, but it isn't. "Jerry got a lot of stadium for $1.15 billion, that's a special stadium," said Ganis, emphasizing that Cowboys Stadium is an example of maximizing dollars with a multipurpose palace. The second point could be cleaned up to a degree if more followed the lead of the Patriots and Eagles, who hired their own development staffs to provide oversight on the budget of stadiums, rather than handing control over to contractors.
But what's unavoidable is that it is, indeed, more expensive now. Stadiums built over the past 15 years, many planned in a robust economy, raised the bar to cater to a public that's having a harder time affording the amenities now seen as essential. And for some teams, that means the challenge ahead has mounted.
So which teams are next in line, with the Niners and Vikings taken care of? Ganis and a pair of club executives rubber-stamped the list below -- Grubman declined to comment on it -- with teams listed in order of most immediate concern:
Oakland Raiders: The Raiders' lease expires after the 2013 season, and the club is losing money in the O.Co Coliseum, so a long-term solution is sorely needed. The ideal one, in the Raiders' eyes, is to build on the current grounds. But as difficult as stadium construction is in California, that's unlikely. If the Raiders were planning to bolt to L.A., by rule, they'd have to exhaust all options in their territory first, and that means looking at sharing Santa Clara with the Niners. The neighbors have had conversations about that, with the real question being whether, from a business standpoint, the Bay Area is big enough for both.
St. Louis Rams: Per the terms of their lease, the Rams and the city's Convention and Visitors Commission have drafted plans to upgrade the Edward Jones Dome. The city estimates the club's plan to cost $700 million, with the commission's plan coming in at $124 million. By year's end, an arbitrator will come up with a compromise. If the city accepts it, the Rams' lease extends to 2024 and the dome gets renovated. If the city rejects it, the lease goes year-to-year after 2014, and the Rams become a prime target for Los Angeles developers, with deep-pocketed owner Stan Kroenke having strong ties to both Missouri and L.A.
San Diego Chargers: The Chargers have a three-month escape clause at the start of each year, and can leave next winter for $22 million. But there is a feeling that the Spanos family doesn't want to ditch San Diego. But here's the big thing: Even in beaten-down Qualcomm Stadium, the team is making money. The Bolts have tried to get a new place for a while, something, again, that's not easy in California. Still, this market is valuable to the league, and if the Chargers leave for L.A., San Diego immediately becomes the top relocation option for others. Which means it makes sense for the NFL to exhaust every avenue to keep the Bolts at home.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Shad Khan's still in his infancy as an NFL owner, so the Jags aren't going anywhere for a while. But this market's a tough one for the league, and the club has laid out to the city what it needs in renovations to make cavernous EverBank Field work. The Jags also have options to leave if this situation worsens. One is a three-year process, where they'd have to lose money one year, land under the league average in revenue the next two years, then pay off outstanding bonds. The other is a straight buyout, at a significant cost. For now, the Jags are staying. Long-term, things are murkier.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills have successfully regionalized their franchise in a way the Jags haven't, with 32 percent of the club's season-ticket base now from the neighboring Southern Ontario and Rochester areas. They also recently struck a five-year deal to continue playing games in Toronto through 2017, and have a $200 million stadium renovation plan they're working with government on. The question of who the next owner will be lingers, and the market will always be limited, but the Bills have made the most of their situation.
Atlanta Falcons: Discussions on a new stadium have been going on behind closed doors for six years, and the price tag is expected to be around $1 billion. This isn't considered a pressing situation -- the Georgia Dome's lease is tied to bonds being paid off -- but of the seven teams on this list, the Falcons are probably the most likely to have a new stadium built at home. Because it's Atlanta, it makes sense for the city, with SEC title games, Final Fours, the new college football playoffs and Super Bowls a potential payoff for this Southern capital. It might just be a matter of when on this one.
Carolina Panthers: A year-long study is under way in Charlotte to determine the upgrades needed at Bank of America Stadium, with the Panthers looking at a major renovation of the 16-year-old structure. There's no lease in Carolina, and owner Jerry Richardson has no succession plan for the club, so keeping the stadium updated is a priority for the team in keeping the region an attractive place to be.
What's fascinating about the above list is that of the seven clubs, only San Diego and Atlanta are thought to have a fighting chance at an entirely new stadium. It illustrates how the landscape has changed in a decade-and-a-half. It also underscores how even owners who opened stadiums in this millennia have some home improvement to do.
The technology and the cost
The Niners refer to their upcoming, under-construction home as a "smart stadium," but most of it comes down to connectivity. The focus for now is getting the Digital Antennae Systems (DAS) and Wifi up to speed and integrated, and that's a constantly moving target. The Cowboys, Colts, Patriots, Saints, Panthers, Cardinals, Giants/Jets and Niners are among those leading the charge. But what's clear is that progress isn't optional, because the broadcasting innovations keeping people on their couches won't go away, either.
"While we recognize that the environment at home has gotten better, we don't look at it as competing with our product," Grubman said. "The offering at the stadium has to get better at the same rate as the offering at home. And all of us, the league and the clubs, haven't paid as much attention to the stadiums as we have the home experience, in part because the cycle in building a stadium is much longer, and in part because we have such great broadcast partners that are constantly improving.
"So you have a larger group on the broadcast side, and a smaller group on the stadium side, and that's where the problem can arise. But we're turning our attention to the stadiums. We like that it should be getting better at a faster pace."
For stadiums from that four-year, nine-stadium boom (Cincinnati, Denver, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Houston, New England, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia) of a decade ago, it means higher quality videoboards ("Every stadium doesn't have to have a gigantic, center-hung board, but they need to be state-of-the-art," said Grubman); connectivity that keeps up with mobile technology and allows full use of smartphones on-site; and the highest level of interactivity possible. It'll also likely mean moving the stadium outside the walls, with additional entertainment and conditions on the perimeter.
For teams like Oakland and San Diego, playing in outdated facilities that opened as AFL-era multipurpose stadiums, the challenge of getting up to speed is even more daunting. Answers that applied 10 years ago aren't as easy to come by. Los Angeles will be an answer for someone filling the three core reasons the NFL requires for relocation: An unrenovated stadium necessitating a move, a lease allowing it, and a financial situation tied to the facility motivating it.
But as the league emphasized in its memo to the 32 clubs in late June, it will control L.A., and it's clear the powers-that-be are waiting for the right stadium, the right team and the right owner to fill a huge market that it is determined not to screw up again. London isn't close to being ready for a team, and there isn't a Baltimore or St. Louis out there, like there was in the mid-1990s. So here we are.
"In some cases, these renovations may cost more than the stadiums did in the first place," Ganis said. "I'd guess the Chargers will get a new stadium, and the Falcons will find a way to do it, and eventually, L.A. will get done. But it won't be easy."
As is the case with so many other things, it comes down to the money. In the day of a $300 million football stadium, $150 million from the government would represent a 50-50 partnership. Today, that public contribution would be less than 15 percent in many cases -- and that's assuming there'd be a public contribution at all, in an economy that's not the same as it was in the 1990s.
"It'd say that for the most part," one team executive said, "the day and age of public funding is over. It's a partnership now. At best."
That's a lot to digest for the league and its teams. Fans want more from their experience, more for their dollar, and it will take big bucks to satisfy those demands. And no one wants to listen to the NFL, one of the world's most successful and profitable sports leagues, crying poor over any of this.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer