It was about time that somebody at the table said it. It is not often that the unvarnished truth is uttered by a PR flack. Instead of lathering on the blather, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's spokesman cut through it. Noting that the state and county are in line, Josh Vlasto this week told The News: "The only party that has not said they are committed to keeping the Bills in Buffalo is the Bills."
Thank you.
Lost in the overblown reverence for Ralph Wilson is a cold, hard fact: The Bills patriarch has long had the power to lock the team here for decades after he is gone. He has refused to do so.
The 93-year-old owner could have sidestepped the massive estate taxes that will force a post-mortem sale by leaving the team to his wife. He could have created a succession plan with a Buffalo-committed group. Finally, he could have long ago agreed in principle to a deal that ties the team here for decades, no matter who owns it.
"Wilson can sign a lease tomorrow," Andrew Zimbalist told me, "and say the franchise is committed to spending the next 10 or 20 years in Buffalo, and any new owner would be bound to that."
The Smith College professor is an expert on sports economics. He uttered the "tomorrow" quote last year. Needless to say, "tomorrow" has yet to come.
Which is precisely the point state officials made this week. Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy tied $200 million of stadium upgrades to "a long-term commitment by the Bills to stay in Buffalo regardless of future ownership."
Granted, the team is worth less here than it would be in, say, NFL-covetous Los Angeles. A lease that locks the Bills here for years trims the team's estimated $900 million value. But not by much. The next owner still will be buying into the most exclusive - and lucrative - club in America.
Even a sub-$900 million sale marks an astronomical return on Wilson's $25,000 investment. That return is less a result of inspired ownership than it is a consequence of the monopoly enjoyed by NFL owners. They have ridden the tsunami of NFL popularity and billions of dollars in broadcast revenue to unimaginable profits.
Wilson has gotten his share. I think it is only fair that the community that supported the team the past half-century gets something in return. Particularly if we foot most of the bill for a stadium facelift.
I suggested in an earlier column that we hold off on stadium surgery and simply extend the current lease year-to-year. We then can offer the next owner a stadium makeover in return for staying. Doing it that way might save us the cost of a stadium facelift, but at the likely expense of losing the team.
Which brings us back to the better way: A long-term lockdown lease, with no early exit for the next owner.
The ball, to mix sporting metaphors, is in Ralph Wilson's court. Just like it always has been.