In the midst of all the happy talk over the Bills’ new lease deal Friday, a TV reporter had the temerity to ask Russ Brandon if a succession plan was in place to sell the team after owner Ralph Wilson is no longer with us.
“The question becomes tiresome,” said Brandon, the Bills’ chief executive officer. “I understand it, but it becomes tiresome. Mr. Wilson’s loyalty is unmatched as any owner in professional sports, and I think we should be here today to applaud him.”
On cue, all the politicians and PR types at One Bills Drive applauded. They almost seemed to be applauding for themselves. Really, how dare a reporter ask the one tough question that hovers over the franchise and torments the long-suffering fan base? This was a day for civic cheerleading, for unquestioning optimism.
But you can excuse any Bills fans who, regardless of a new lease or proposed new stadium, might be reluctant to applaud the owner after watching their beloved football team miss the playoffs for a 13th consecutive season.
Don’t get me wrong. Friday was a very good day for Buffalo and for Bills fans around the world. The Bills announced the signing of a 10-year lease agreement with Erie County and the state. They also revealed plans to explore the possibility of building a new stadium after the new lease on Ralph Wilson Stadium expires.
The lease deal includes a “liquidated damages” clause, which would require the Bills to repay $400 million if they moved the team in the first seven years.
That $400 million was a stunning figure. Three months ago, there was speculation that the relocation penalty could be $50 million to $100 million. The previous lease had a sliding scale of paybacks that had dipped to $2 million in the final year. The county wanted a longer term – the previous lease was for 15 years – but the $400 million clause got them seven years of certainty.
But there’s one little catch, something that will nag away at Buffalo fans like a bad seven-year itch. After the seventh year, the franchise will have a one-time window to relocate with a repayment penalty of only $28.4 million.
Seven years can be a long time. Brandon guaranteed the Bills would stay in Buffalo for that long. That’s great news for anyone who anguished over the prospect of a one-year extension.
Bills fans are accustomed to dealing with lowered expectations. The knowledge that the Bills will remain in Buffalo until 2020 is sufficient comfort for now.
On the other hand, seven years goes by pretty fast. It was seven years ago that the Bills fired Tom Donahoe. It’s coming up on eight years since the Patriots last won a Super Bowl. Before you know it, that seventh year will be creeping up on us.
Wilson will likely be gone by then. The new lease buys time for a local ownership group to get the money and mechanisms in place to keep the Bills in Buffalo. But I have to believe the Bills insisted on that $28 million relocation option so the lease wouldn’t discourage any potential buyer who might want to move the team.
One way or another, the new lease puts the Bills on more solid ground. I’m not sure about a new stadium. I wonder if they floated that idea to appease the fan base. They don’t have much to sell next season. Dangling the thought of a spanking-new downtown stadium might give desperate fans a brief, renewed sense of optimism about the team.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, whose political star rises with this deal, said the Ralph could very well be finished as an NFL venue after 10 years.
“It might be,” Poloncarz said. “It just might be. A lot of people forgot, they originally asked for about $230 million (in renovations). We cut back some plans. The Bills gave on some. We were not going to invest a quarter-billion on a stadium that might only be here another 10 years.”
You might also conclude the county and state weren’t ready to invest more in a team that wouldn’t commit to Buffalo for more than 10 years. The question remains, if the Bills are so committed to this area, why only a 10-year lease? And if Wilson is worthy of applause, why not lay out a succession plan?
Ron Zeller, who led the Business Backs the Bills movement in 1998, was less than sanguine. Zeller said it was “better than not having an agreement” and characterized the lease as “temporary good news.” This from a man who has been through the dance before.
Another seven years of NFL certainty is nice. The thought of a state-of-the-art stadium in the distant future, however far-fetched, is an intriguing one. But if the Bills expect to be taken seriously, they should put together a state-of-the art football operation. Now.
Seven years will indeed go by quickly if the Bills don’t start winning. Friday’s happy news might allow the more gullible fans to look past 13 years of dysfunction. But a bunch of cheering politicians doesn’t change the fact that the product on the field is a joke. Sadly, the Toronto series appears to be intact. They should have killed it.
The Bills want us to believe they’re a first-class NFL franchise with designs on a new stadium. Fine. Start acting like a first-rate operation. A team with a true commitment to excellence doesn’t have tired mediocrities like Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey running the show. It doesn’t perpetuate the myth of Ryan Fitzpatrick as a franchise quarterback.
The clock is ticking. From what I heard Friday, the Bills’ long-term future is now tied to the building of a new stadium. If they don’t turn it around soon, how much support will there be to spend the money on a state-of-the-art facility? I hate to say it, but what if the non-playoff streak reaches 20 by the end of the seven years?
Yeah, tell me about tiresome.