A new NFL season has just begun. Our beloved men in stripes are celebrating their 50th season. But will the Bengals be here to celebrate their 60th anniversary?

Cincinnati was all in for our team’s inaugural 1968 season. I had recently graduated from high school when they hosted the Denver Broncos for their first home game Sept. 15, 1968. Twenty five thousand fans celebrated an upset win at Nippert Stadium, the new team’s temporary home during the construction of Riverfront Stadium.

Much drama led to that first kickoff. Paul Brown, the deposed father of that now sad team on Ohio’s north coast, came back from football exile to win a franchise in the upstart AFL once city council agreed to build a new stadium to be shared with the Reds on the Riverfront.

By 1970, the men in stripes had moved to Riverfront Stadium. A league merger put them in the NFL with football’s big boys. The Bengals stunned the league by making the playoffs, winning all of their games after a 1-6 start.

The Bengals had their years of semi-glory at big, sterile Riverfront. There were two glorious trips to the Super Bowl under coaches Forest Gregg (1982) and Sam Wyche (1989). Both ended in heartbreaking losses to the 49ers, led by a former Bengal assistant coach that got away, Bill Walsh.

After that 1989 Super Bowl, came a lost decade or two. There were memorable QB draft choices like David Klingler and Jack “the Throwin’ Samoan” Thompson. Who could forget Coach Dave Shula?

Paul Brown Stadium, paid for by Hamilton County taxpayers, opened in 2000. The lease was described by Business Insider as “the worst stadium deal ever.” Forbes Magazine reported that by the time the Bengals’ lease expires in 2026, taxpayers will have paid about $1.1 billion to subsidize the season tickets I sat in for the past 16 years. But what happens when that lease expires in nine years?

NFL team owners have become famous for holding cities hostage when leases expire. Teams known only recently as the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers now have “LA” in front of their names on the ESPN scoreboard. The Raiders are ditching their notoriously rabid fans in Oakland, and moving to a brand new taxpayer-built stadium in Las Vegas. Oakland, St. Louis and San Diego are larger TV markets than Cincinnati. Any new lease negotiation between the Bengals and the county will not be pretty.

The Brown family owns a team that Forbes values at $1.68 billion. That’s hardly chump change, but puts the Bengals at the very bottom of the NFL heap. NFL royalty like the Dallas Cowboys are worth more than $4 billion.

How much would the Bengals be worth in a larger market like London or Toronto if a Russian oligarch or Saudi prince decided to dabble in NFL football? If Mike Brown gives up his corner office at the stadium, would anyone blame the younger Brown generation if it decided to cash in before 2026?

The time for the Brown family to sell may be sooner rather than later. NFL TV ratings were down 8 percent last season. That’s a bad omen for a league built on TV contract revenue.

Has the value of an NFL franchise peaked? If so, the “sell” light may be flashing in the Brown family’s Sky Box. And if the team is sold, what are the chances that a Russian oligarch or tech industry kingpin will keep his new team in musty old Cincinnati after the stadium lease expires in nine years?

It’s not too early for Hamilton County commissioners to consider how to pay off those bonds and recoup the taxpayers’ investment in Paul Brown Stadium if their only tenant moves on.

Don Mooney is an attorney, a past member of the Cincinnati Planning Commission and is active in local politics.

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