PITTSBURGH – A judge on Thursday rejected a claim by the Pittsburgh Steelers that the taxpayer-funded city-county Sports and Exhibition Authority must pay most of the estimated $30 million cost to add 3,000 seats to Heinz Field.
Allegheny County Judge Joseph James’ ruling on Wednesday isn’t final. The issue could still be litigated at a trial in December, but the judge ruled the Steelers – for now – haven’t proved the plain language of the stadium lease supported the team. The team was hoping for a pretrial ruling on that particular issue.
The Steelers’ lawsuit contends the new seats at the 12-year-old stadium qualify as a “capital improvement” under which the authority must pay two-thirds of the cost. But authority officials argued the new seats qualify only as a “modification” of the stadium which, under the language of the lease, would mean the Steelers pay the entire bill.
James found the lease requires the Steelers to prove three things for the extra seats to qualify as a capital improvement: the Steelers must prove at least half of the NFL’s teams have made a similar addition with at least 25 percent of the cost borne by taxpayers; that the extra seats are “reasonably necessary” to keep the Steelers relatively competitive to other teams economically; and that the seats are needed to keep the stadium from becoming outdated compared with others built by NFL teams between 1999 and 2004.
Heinz Field, which opened in 2001, has 65,050 seats, ranking it 25th out of 31 NFL stadiums. The Steelers have a string of consecutive sellouts dating to 1972 and thousands of fans on a season-ticket waiting list, and could easily meet the demand for the new seats.
Steelers attorney Arthur Stroyd Jr. said he’ll try to prove that the judge’s interpretation of the lease is incorrect by taking depositions sworn pretrial statements of officials involved in crafting the lease between now and the Dec. 4 trial.
“We remain confident in our legal and factual position,” the team said in a statement. “Our lease clearly set out the obligations the SEA agreed to perform regarding our proposed improvements at Heinz Field.”
Authority executive director Mary Conturo said the judge’s ruling is a “clear affirmation” of the authority’s position.
“As we have maintained, the Steelers are not entitled to receive funding for a seating expansion simply by unilaterally notifying the SEA of their wishes. They are required to satisfy the terms of the lease,” she said.
The December trial will also determine whether the Steelers will be reimbursed for a new $5 million audio-visual control room at the stadium and have to pay for a new scoreboard proposed for the end zone opposite the proposed new seats.