NFL Preps for Burst of Stadium Construction After Recent Quiet Era
The NFL will finish this season with eight more years of labor peace, $130 billion in new media deals and soaring valuations. Attendance and sponsorships are up. TV ratings are dominant. So what’s next for the world’s richest sports league?
Only two NFL venues, SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, have opened during the past five years, and no others are expected to open before 2026, when the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans hope to unveil new facilities. The two openings will mark the fewest in any eight-year period in more than three decades for the world’s richest sports league. For comparison, 16 new NFL stadiums opened between 1995 and 2003.
But the lack of recent openings belies the action behind the scenes, as teams, architects and builders prep for the next stadium boom. “It’s as active of a period as I’ve ever seen,” Mike Ondrejko, head of Legends Global Sales, said in a video interview.
Those late 1990s and early 2000s stadiums are all getting long in the tooth, and roughly half of NFL teams are evaluating major renovations or full-scale replacements for their current homes, keeping in mind the soaring construction costs, tight labor supplies and rising interest rates as they map out their plans. New innovations and changing consumer expectations are also at play.
SoFi ($5.5 billion) and Allegiant ($1.9 billion), the two most expensive NFL stadiums ever built, raised the bar on the stadium experience. They are not only two of the best venues in football, but also two of the premier venues in any sport around the world.
NBA and MLB clubs can possess massive local TV deals that help determine the financial pecking order in their respective leagues. That’s not the case in the NFL, where local media represents less than 2% of the league’s $19 billion in revenue. In football, financial bragging rights are all about the stadium.
The Bills and Titans are still in the planning phases of their stadiums. But don’t expect to have replicas of SoFi or Allegiant; what worked in Los Angeles and Las Vegas is not necessarily a fit in Buffalo or Nashville.
“Every single one of the 30 cities is different, with a unique fanbase, unique climate, unique history, unique foods and all the way down the line,” said Mark Williams, head of the sports and entertainment practice at HKS, which designed SoFi and NFL venues in Dallas, Minnesota and Indianapolis. “It’s about building environments and experiences so that people can experience sports entertainment at a different and deeper level. That to me is the future.”
The Bills and New York State officials are nearing final approval on a $1.4 billion, 60,000-seat venue to replace 50-year-old Highmark Stadium, which is the oldest NFL venue without a major renovation (Soldier Field, Lambeau Field and Arrowhead Stadium had a combined $1.6 billion in renovations over the past two decades). The open-air stadium, which would open in 2026, will include 60 suites and have stacked seating to help partly shield fans from the Western New York cold and wind. The Titans are also targeting 2026 for their $2.1 billion domed venue that will be adjacent to their current Nissan Stadium.
The Chicago Bears have long been a financial underperformer within the NFL. It is the biggest market with only one team, yet the club’s revenues ranked No. 14 during the 2021 season. The team hopes to change that reality with a new stadium, potentially leaving Soldier Field in downtown Chicago for a 326-acre site in the Arlington Heights suburbs that would be a multi-purpose project with entertainment, commercial, retail and housing.
Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder has been a barrier in his team’s search for a new stadium, as the club was rocked by congressional hearings, independent investigations and accusations of harassment. With the team on the block, any new owner will have to weigh a new venue costing north of $2 billion to replace 26-year-old FedEx Field, in addition to what is expected to be the highest price ever paid for an NFL franchise.
Rob Walton—the NFL’s richest owner at $64 billion, according to Bloomberg—didn’t waste time in looking into his stadium after paying $4.65 billion for the team last summer. In January, the Broncos hired Legends to conduct an “extensive market research project” regarding Empower Field at Mile High and the gameday experience. The Broncos still have nine years left on their current lease, and the club is spending $100 million on upgrades to the building this offseason—the largest capital improvement project since the $401 million building opened in 2001.
A handful of other teams are making stadium-related moves. The Baltimore Ravens extended their lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority after the MSA approved as much as $600 million in renovations towards M&T Bank Stadium. Last month, the Jacksonville Jaguars tapped design firm HOK as their consultant on a potential $1 billion renovation of TIAA Bank Field. The Cleveland Browns hired HKS last year to do a feasibility study on FirstEnergy Stadium, which is 24 years old. Tampa Bay and Carolina are also exploring their options.
Currently, the owners of two of the most lucrative NFL stadiums are giving their venues a facelift. The New England Patriots, who generate the third most local revenue behind the Cowboys and Rams, are spending $225 million to upgrade Gillette Stadium ahead of the 2023 season. The Dallas Cowboys, which set a new bar when AT&T Stadium opened in 2009, are spending more than $250 million ahead of the 2026 World Cup to ensure it continues to be on the short list of venues for Super Bowls, Final Fours and college football national championships.
In stadium financing, the axiom often holds that the smaller the city, the bigger the public contribution, and Nashville and Buffalo both rank in the bottom quartile of NFL cities by market size. The Bills’ new venue will include $850 million in municipal subsidies, including $600 million from the state and $250 million from Erie County. For the Titans, the team is responsible for $840 million, while $500 million will come from the state and $760 million from revenue bonds issued by the Metro Sports Authority.
“In some of these smaller markets, you do need the public financing to make the economics work considering the revenues that the stadium will be able to generate relative to a big market,” Henry Flynn, a credit analyst at Fitch, said in a phone interview.
When it comes to the new Washington stadium, the wealth and size of the D.C. market would typically make public funding a no-go, but the team’s location allows the team to pit politicians in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. against each other.
“Public financing is very bespoke to the marketplace,” Irwin Raij, co-chair of Sidley’s Entertainment, Sports and Industry group, said in a phone interview. Raij represented New York in their negotiations with the Bills.
NFL owners have traditionally worked together to build the business of the league, and its credit facility for stadium building is part of that. “Stadiums are local, but they also generate some national revenue—it’s in every club’s interest to make sure we have healthy and functional stadiums around the league,” said NFL chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp.
The current G-4 program raised the amount teams could borrow from $150 million to $200 million in 2011. The loans are essentially forgiven, as they are paid back by club seat proceeds that otherwise would be shared with the other 31 teams. The Philadelphia Eagles borrowed $150 million from the credit facility for their $512 million stadium that opened in 2003. The current cap represented barely 10% of the cost of Allegiant Stadium. Owners have discussed the possibility of increasing those limits, possibly to $300 million, according to someone familiar with the talks.
With stadium costs climbing, teams have turned to other funding sources. Personal seat licenses gained traction in the 1990s, but the Raiders took the PSL to a new level, raising $549 million towards its stadium project. The NFL also gave teams another lever to pull last fall when it raised its debt limit from $500 million to $600 million (G-4 borrowings are outside this ceiling).
The limits are still extremely conservative considering the average franchise value is $4.14 billion, roughly four times what it was a decade ago. “The NFL is one the strongest leagues globally when it comes to the amount of debt that clubs can take on,” Flynn said.
Higher interest rates are not slowing down any projects. Teams are considering shorter-term or variable loans and benefit from being able to deduct the interest as a business expense.
The NFL has moved away from the cookie-cutter approach to stadium building, with SoFi’s futuristic indoor-outdoor venue the most extreme recent example. Teams want venues as diverse as possible, both in terms of what type of events can occur in the buildings, as well as the size of events beyond just the 70,000 to watch a game.
Designers and sales teams are taking best practices from different projects and customizing them for other venues. Legends sold loge boxes at the 50-yard line at a renovated Notre Dame Stadium and took the concept to Las Vegas, which doesn’t have a huge corporate base but had a significant appetite for the four-person loge product.
Architects are thinking about how to incorporate the rapidly evolving technology available to them and to service the changing fan who might be looking for a more social space than to park themselves in a stadium seat for three hours. HKS’ Williams says only 4% of NFL fans will step foot in an NFL stadium, and that teams need to think about how to reach that other 96% with a gameday-type experience.
“There is a demographic that is connecting virtually to a lot of things, and that is a huge area that needs to be integrated into a lot of the stuff we do,” Williams said. “There is no reason that a beautiful seat on the 40-yard line can’t be used by somebody in London or Munich or Sydney and feel like they are sitting right there. That can be done today, and I think it should be done.”
If the surrounding stadium footprint allows, every team is thinking about what they can do around their venues. The Kraft family provided a blueprint with Patriot Place, and Stan Kroenke took things to a different level with Hollywood Park. There are multiple benefits to these mixed-use projects. The revenue stays outside of the NFL pie that is split 50-50 with the players. It also gives municipalities more cover to provide tax breaks and grants toward something more than a stadium that might host 15 events a year.
“The power of teams and the IP associated with them make those developments much more interesting,” Sidley’s Raij said. “People want to be around them. Especially those between the ages of say 21 and 40. It is the place to be.”
Team owners want to provide fans with a better stadium experience, but 1A on the agenda is generating more revenue. Premium seating and sponsorships are the two areas where teams can post the biggest gains, with each bucket representing roughly 25% of NFL local revenues.
Sponsorships have moved well beyond the basic sign in the corner, but there is more ahead. “There is an opportunity to integrate sponsors into these buildings in a much deeper way,” HKS’ Williams said. “What touchpoints do you want to have with that fan base? How do you what them to walk out and know about your company? We can create and design spaces that elevate the sponsor integration with those fans.”
For decades, NFL stadiums had a simple approach to how they priced their product in the stadium. There was the lower bowl, upper bowl and a higher-end product. “The Roman Colosseum was that way 2,000 years ago, and it was that way when Lambeau Field opened 1,957 years later,” Williams said. AT&T Stadium transformed that model with an array of price points to serve different needs of the customer, and recent buildings have taken it a step further on both standard ticketing and the premium category.
“So much of the economics driven on a local level come from healthy stadiums and local markets. And that hasn’t changed in 30 years,” Rolapp said. “What has changed is the fans’ expectations of their experience, the use of these buildings for other events, the underlying economy, and the costs are going up, which is partly because the buildings are much more multi-purpose and packed with features that fans need and want.”
With assistance from Eben Novy-Williams.