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Ravens have begun stadium lease discussions with state of Maryland, eyeing future upgrades

The Ravens have started discussions with the state on a new stadium lease, eyeing possible upgrades including additional lower-bowl premium seating and easier access to the developing Warner Street corridor, according to the team.

The NFL club’s lease, which was signed in 1997, isn’t up until after the 2027 season, but the team and the Maryland Stadium Authority began preliminary talks last summer on “an extended lease,” team president Dick Cass said in an interview.

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“The Ravens are very focused on gameday fan experience and don’t want to wait five years to plan more stadium upgrades,” said Thomas Kelso, the authority’s chairman.

Several months ago, the team retained Populous, the same architectural firm that designed a $120 million M&T Bank Stadium renovation project completed in 2019 that included new, high-definition video boards and new suites in the four corners.

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This time, the Kansas City-based firm has been asked to “help us determine what changes we need to make in order to keep M&T Bank Stadium a first-class NFL stadium for 10 to 15 years after the expiration of our current lease,” Cass said.

Among other upgrades, the firm will explore ideas to add new premium seating.

“At some of the stadiums you’re seeing boxes down on the field. We did a little bit in the last renovation and we need to find more opportunities for that,” Cass said.

A few years ago, the club opened a small, field-level box, in partnership with Bud Light, near one of the end zones. Other venues such as MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Giants and New York Jets, offer more low-level suites that are among the priciest seats in the stadium.

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Although sometimes overshadowed by its neighbor — the popular Oriole Park at Camden Yards — M&T Bank Stadium, which opened in 1998, is generally well regarded. It ranks in the middle of the pack in fan or pundit surveys of NFL stadiums.

It’s not as sleek as the newest NFL stadiums in Las Vegas and Inglewood, California. The Ravens say they have invested more than $220 million to keep it up to date, including the $120 million spent on the recent Populous-designed improvements.

Sports economist Dennis Coates of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County said it’s worth noting that neither the Orioles nor Ravens are seeking fancy new venues.

“Stadiums seem to be getting shorter in their active lives,” said Coates calling it “a positive” that neither Baltimore club was pushing for a new venue.

Under their lease, the Ravens don’t pay rent but instead reimburse the authority for the cost of operations and maintenance.

The stadium is in an area of South Baltimore that the city hopes to turn into a popular entertainment district. As part of the lease talks, the Ravens hope to better link the stadium to that nascent Warner Street corridor, Cass said.

The four-block mostly industrial corridor could draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, city and business officials said, and re-energize nearby Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, which has fallen short of state revenue projections in recent years.

Plans for the district include a 4,000-seat concert hall called The Paramount and a Topgolf driving range.

”That’s going to be our future,” said Randy Conroy, general manager of Horseshoe, which courts Ravens fans and has a deal allowing it to use the team’s team trademarks and logos. “Topgolf and the Paramount are the first pieces of the puzzle.”

The Ravens’ expectation, Cass said, is “that the area between Horseshoe and Top Golf will become an important entertainment area for the city, and we want to connect it up with the stadium in a way that makes sense for all of us.”

Fans coming from the casino and the parking there now encounter a parking lot. Cass said the team envisions more welcoming access.

“A lot of fans will start coming from the south,” he said. “Maybe we’d put a plaza there with activities for fans.”

Kelso said the stadium authority supported “all efforts by the Ravens to engage in better connecting the Camden Yards Sports Complex to the entertainment venues to the south.”

The Ravens and the stadium authority said it would be premature to say they were “negotiating.” The parties said they are in the early stage of discussions that began in earnest over the summer, although they’d had check-ins before that.

The authority is also in stadium discussions with the Orioles, whose lease was to expire at the end of the year but has been extended through Dec. 31, 2023.

Talking to both clubs about their leases presents a chance to consider the stadium complex holistically, Kelso said. He said the stadium authority and the teams are akin to economic development partners with the shared goal of creating inviting spaces in and around the stadiums.

“Thirty years ago, the approach was landlord-tenant, but today the teams really are our partners in delivering maximum return on our collective investments,” Kelso said.

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