ALBANY - Fourteen days before being sworn in as governor, George E. Pataki traveled to Buffalo in December 1994 and took in a Bills football game. On the field, the New England Patriots were annihilating the Bills.
But in a box above, Pataki huddled with owner Ralph Wilson. While the two supposedly talked only football, Pataki found himself becoming involved in efforts to keep the team from leaving when the lease on the county-owned stadium expired three years later.
"We want the Bills to be here for a long time," Pataki said after that game, committing to do "everything we can" to cut a deal.
His involvement in reaching a 15-year agreement for the Bills helped endear him to many voters in the Buffalo area during his two re-election contests.
Now, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has the opportunity to keep the team and New York's only state-based NFL franchise from leaving a small-market region for more fertile financial opportunities in larger cities.
But for Cuomo, whose administration was recently criticized for being slow to get into the increasingly urgent talks over a new Bills stadium lease agreement, these negotiations also present potential political pitfalls.
"Some politicians have been fried when a city loses a pro team on their watch," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who has studied stadium construction deals struck with the help of public financing by politicians desperate to keep a sports franchise from leaving.
Two weeks ago, senior Cuomo administration officials questioned whether the Bills were truly committed to staying in Buffalo, a worry that seemed to disappear a couple of days later when Cuomo, for the first time, became directly engaged with top Bills executives about a lease extension.
While Cuomo's popularity in the region has improved since he lost all Western New York counties in his 2010 election, a successful outcome with the Bills would almost surely give him a political bump with some local voters.
Failure would present another challenge.
Cuomo or any politicians who get enmeshed in a high-stakes matter like the Bills' future "is risking some of their political capital" if things do not work out, according to James Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo.
"I think a lot of people would blame him if the Bills left," Campbell said. "There would be blame all around, locally as well."
County Executive Mark Poloncarz would be among top local officials getting political heat if the team moves, most observers say.
If Cuomo does have his eyes on a 2016 White House run, his re-election contest for governor in two years needs to be a cakewalk with all regions of the state - Democratic and Republican - embracing him.
"I believe he has his eyes on the nomination in the next presidential election, and he doesn't want any ink on a big public failure or perceived failure," Campbell said.
On the flip side, there will be some voters, maybe more so outside Western New York, who will be angry with any deal Cuomo strikes involving public funding for a team valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Huge amounts of public money have been spent in recent years to help build new stadiums and arenas for the New York Yankees, New York Mets and the now-Brooklyn Nets, who are moving from nearby New Jersey to the city's most populated borough.
And while Cuomo has pledged $1 billion for unspecified economic development projects for Western New York over five years, the state has spent far more on helping finance construction of high-technology facilities in the Albany area or the $5 billion that Cuomo estimates a new bridge over the Hudson River near New York City will cost as his signature public works project.
For the Cuomo administration, which is considering upwards of $200 million in public money for various renovation work at the Bills' stadium, the tricky part will be balancing that spending with how long of a commitment the team makes to Buffalo, experts say.
"I suspect that Cuomo is trying to accommodate Buffalo because the city has been deflating for so long. It would be a difficult psychological blow if the Bills were to leave. They are a significant part of the city's cultural fabric," said Zimbalist, who has served as a consultant to a variety of professional sports' legal, financial and collective-bargaining matters, including stadium financing and team relocation issues.
Cuomo ought to be able to get a 15-year commitment from the Bills if he fashions the right financial deal, Zimbalist added.
"Spending $200 million for 10 years [of commitment], I'm not sure if that is the right formula," he said.
Even if the talks don't work, Cuomo can come out looking strong, the economist said, if he puts out a plan that is "very concrete and makes sense."
"If he is wishy-washy, and he gives away the store, I don't think he comes out OK. He might make people in Buffalo happy, but he makes the rest of the people in the state angry," Zimbalist said.
The Cuomo administration declined to comment for this story, although a senior Cuomo administration official recently told The Buffalo News that the governor has been in direct talks with a top adviser to Wilson, and Cuomo also has offered to fly to Wilson's home in Michigan to discuss the stadium issues.
Concerned about the sensitive nature of the talks, some Republicans, including Erie County Republican Party Chairman Nicholas Langworthy, declined to comment on how the Bills staying or leaving might affect Cuomo.
With the governor now publicly committing to be fully engaged on the Bills matter, Democrats say Cuomo has made clear the state will financially help to make a deal.
"I don't see any pitfalls for the governor," said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat. "The Bills are not holding a gun to our head saying, 'We are going to leave if this doesn't happen.' They are saying, 'We want to stay here, we need some help.' So, the county and state are going to come in and provide the funding to make that happen."
Others who have studied stadium financing deals question the involvement of politicians in such matters.
"I don't know much about the motivation of politicians, other than they think that having a sports team makes them look like leaders," said John Siegfried, professor emeritus of economics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
There is a long line of cities that have lost professional sports teams, with much subsequent finger-pointing among politicians. Some cities have later attracted other professional teams to locate to their communities as replacements for lost franchises.
But no one is suggesting that another team will replace the Bills should the team leave.
"There's a lot of good reasons why Cuomo would enmesh himself in something like this, particularly for Western New York," said UB's Campbell. "He's had his political problems in Western New York, where there is a very strong commitment to the Bills, and losing them would be deflating for a lot of reasons."