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Could the Bengals be leaving Cincinnati in the near future?

Hamilton County seems set to ignore a required operations cost payment due to the Bengals, and request a renegotiation of the Paul Brown Stadium deal. Could that send the Bengals packing?

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

According to a recent report by Cincinnati-based WCPO, Hamilton County (home of Cincinnati) is planning to violate part of the lease agreement that the county has in place with the Bengals, in regards to Paul Brown Stadium.

As you may recall, 20 years ago, while the Bengals were still in the middle of their decade-long drought without a winning record, the team demanded a new football-only stadium to replace Riverfront Stadium, which had been shared by the Reds and Bengals since 1970.

Despite the string of losing, the Bengals suggested possibly looking at relocating if a new stadium wasn’t built for them. Hamilton county quickly caved in to the bluff and agreed to build Paul Brown Stadium under a lease agreement with the Bengals, which was considered by the Wall Street Journal, and many others, as a lousy deal for the taxpayers, and one of the worst publicly-funded stadium deals ever.

In addition to the $455 million construction cost and anticipated $258 million construction loan interest, Hamilton County has shelled out millions upon millions for insurance, maintenance, and additional upgrades such as a new scoreboard and stadium wi-fi.

One additional stipulation in the PBS lease is that it requires to county to start paying an annual “game day expenses” payment to the Bengals. The county would need to surrender $2.67 million this year, and increase that by five percent every year until the lease ends in 2026.

That would top out around $3.9 million in 2026 and total almost $30 million. It’s just the latest in a string of bad provisions which are included in the lease agreement, and apparently one where the county intends to draw the line.

Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune told WCPO he has no plans of writing that check to the NFL team

When asked if the Bengals are aware the county intends to ignore the request for payments, Portune said: “I think they know it’s coming.”

The Hamilton County administrator also did not include the payments in his proposed budget for 2018.

If the county does not fulfill this portion of the lease, which seems to be their intent, it could lead to the Bengals suing the county for breach of contract.

If that happens, it’s very likely that the Bengals could exit the lease earlier than 2026 and renew their threat of moving to another city. Since Cincinnati is a small-market team in terms of television markets, that threat is always a real possibility, and likely the reason the county caved in with the horrible lease in the first place.

One thing working for the county if it comes to that, are that three markets all added expansion teams since that deal was signed in 1997. Jacksonville, Florida added the Jaguars, Houston, Texas added the Texans, Charlotte, North Carolina added the Panthers, and the Browns 2.0 were revived in Cleveland.

Unfortunately, St Louis and San Diego both recently lost teams to Los Angeles, and Oakland is likely going to lose one to Las Vegas. So there are certainly possible destinations which have an NFL fan-base already in place ready for a team, and are all larger markets than Cincinnati, Ohio.

Other possibilities could include Portland, Oregon, San Antonio, Texas and Sacramento, California, which are also all larger markets than Cincinnati, and could make a pitch for the Bengals.

The NFL has publicly stated its interest in a team in the U.K., so that is always another possibility. Ultimately, with bigger markets available, the Bengals can push the threat of moving if they so choose, which will force the county to cave in or force the Bengals to back up a possible threat of moving.

Hamilton County has tried to engage the Bengals in a renegotiation of the horribly lopsided lease agreement, and understandably, the Bengals have balked at such discussions.

At this point, we’ll have to see if the county hold true to their stated intent of not honoring this portion of the lease, and how the Bengals respond.