ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The signs that something big is coming have been there. Across Abbott Road from the Buffalo Bills' facility and Highmark Stadium, dirt is being moved and construction vehicles are in full work mode.
With years put into coming to an agreement with New York state and Erie County on a deal, there was no time to waste on beginning construction on the new stadium grounds in time for the 2026 season.
On Monday morning, however, those came to a pause with gold shovels, a stage and all the proper tools for a celebration to hold the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Bills stadium. The agreements include a 30-year lease and a non-relocation agreement that makes it difficult for the team to leave Buffalo, the second-smallest NFL market (larger than only Green Bay).
"While Buffalo isn't one of the larger NFL markets, the days of us operating as a small-market team are in the past," EVP/chief operating officer Ron Raccuia said. "On the field, we've become a national brand, gaining national attention and attracting national opportunities. Our fans stretch across the country and the world, and as an organization, we carry this banner with commitment and pride."
The ceremony included speeches from Raccuia, who has led the stadium project for the Bills, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Bills owner/CEO Terry Pegula, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. Coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane were also in attendance. Bills owner/president Kim Pegula, who played a significant role in the stadium process, was not able to be present as she continues to recover from a cardiac arrest last June.
Raccuia later described Goodell as being on the "Mount Rushmore of people who made" the stadium deal happen with the league office supporting getting a deal done. The commissioner is a native of Jamestown, New York, located about an hour and a half from the stadium, and while he said he's not sure how many groundbreakings he has been to in his tenure, saying just that it's over 20, "none of them are more meaningful than being here today."
"This is an extraordinary community. They deserve an extraordinary stadium, and you're going to get it and I think, as western New Yorkers, we'll all be proud," Goodell said. "It'll be not only a great stadium but filled with incredible fans. Western New York has always shown that passion for football, for the Bills. It's just for us, I don't think of it as 30 years, I think it as a lifetime. I think of it as the future. The Bills are now secured in western New York, and that's something that we should all take great pride in."
The new stadium will officially also be called Highmark Stadium, as announced by Terry Pegula, thanks to a new naming rights agreement with Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York to extend the partnership with the Bills.
When the deal was initially reached in March 2022, the combined $850 million in public funding for the initially $1.4 billion outdoor stadium ($600 million from New York state and $250 million from Erie County) was the largest public commitment for an NFL stadium. That has since been surpassed with the Tennessee Titans receiving more than $1.2 billion in public funding for their future enclosed stadium.
The cost for the new Bills stadium, which is expected to seat about 63,000, is now $1.54 billion, with the Pegulas responsible for any additional costs. The stadium will not have a dome, but it will include stacked seating and a canopy overhang to protect fans from the elements. It will also feature a natural grass field, a change from the turf field at the current stadium.
Since 1973, the Bills have played in the Erie County-owned Highmark Stadium, the fourth-oldest stadium in the NFL. The lease for the stadium has been extended to 2028 to allow for any potential construction issues or delays. The construction of the current stadium was originally 100% publicly financed. New York state will own the new stadium. Final agreement on the 30-year lease came in a unanimous vote from the Erie County Legislature on May 4.
The deadline for the final negotiations was pushed back multiple times amid unforeseen events this past year, including Kim Pegula's cardiac arrest and multiple historic blizzards in Buffalo. The COVID-19 pandemic also hampered discussions.
Included in the documentation for the new deal is a community benefits agreement that includes the team investing at least $3 million a year in the community, with that amount adjusted every year by the price index (subject to a maximum increase of 2.2% a year). That would generate over $100 million over the terms of the lease.
When founder and former team owner Ralph Wilson died in 2014, there was concern about the team potentially being moved out of Buffalo. While Poloncarz said that when the Pegulas bought the team, they felt "relieved," actually coming to an agreement on the team's long-term future in Buffalo settles any conversations.
"Ralph would be looking down and admire the fact that he got it done, because Ralph was in many negotiations [at the old stadium], and getting that stadium built, a lot of negotiations," Mary Wilson, Ralph Wilson's widow, told ESPN. "And also getting improvements to that stadium, a lot of negotiations. So, Ralph would be proud of what they accomplished. ... The Bills are never leaving here. The Bills are never leaving western New York."