I knew if we waited long enough, the Bills would finally win one.
It's too bad the “victory” came at taxpayers' expense.
County and state taxpayers will foot nearly three-quarters of a $130 million stadium-facelift bill, and annually cover about $13 million of the Bills' various expenses, in return for a lease that locks the team here for a mere seven years. After that, the Bills can exit for $28 million, a relative pittance.
We are paying a Cadillac price to hang onto a Pinto franchise. I wish the Bills were half as good on the field as they are at the negotiating table.
The only way we would get even an emotional return on the investment is if the lease came with an elite quarterback, a top-shelf coach and a Super Bowl. Dream on.
“I think it's a bad deal,” said Andrew Zimbalist. “I think [the community] had more leverage than was used.”
Zimbalist is a Smith College economics professor and arguably the country's foremost expert on the business of sports. He noted that the Bills are here for at least another four years even if they wanted to move tomorrow, given the time needed to settle affairs and to find a new home.
“Basically, you bought three years of additional time,” Zimbalist told me by phone, “for $95 million in [taxpayer-funded stadium upgrades].”
Bills CEO Russ Brandon got testy at Friday's news conference when the issue of Ralph Wilson's mortality came up. In truth, the 94-year-old owner's fragility hung like a cloud over the negotiations and drove the final deal. A lease that cemented the team here for a longer term would have depressed the price should the Bills go on the market in the near future. No prospective owner will pay top dollar – likely in excess of $800 million – for a team locked for years in a smaller market that lacks the corporate base and private wealth to fill wallet-padding luxury seats, to pay hefty ticket prices or to command exorbitant ad rates.
There was a lot of happy talk Friday about a new stadium and the Bills staying, in CEO Brandon's words, “for decades.” I don't want to be a Grinch, but there is an early-exit window in this lease for one reason: The Bills insisted on it.
“I wanted a lease agreement that keeps them here for as many years as we could get, ironclad, ” acknowledged County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. “But you don't get everything you want.”
The early-exit clause, to put it simply, opens the door for the team's move, should a new owner be in place. With such megatropolises as Los Angeles and Toronto beckoning, it financially makes no sense for the next owner to stay longer than he has to.
“Once the new Bills ownership is untethered [by a lockdown lease], they will do what is most profitable for the franchise,” Zimbalist told me by phone. “I can't see why a new owner would stay.”
I know there is the hope that – when the Bills hit the auction block – a local group will appear to outbid billionaires across the country. The local owners would keep the team here, at the annual sacrifice of millions of extra dollars to be made in a larger market. I suppose it is possible, but – given our paucity of billionaires, and the failure thus far of anyone to step forward – it sounds more like wishful thinking.
Even this short-term deal comes at a hefty cost. Worse, county taxpayers will carry a heavier share of the load.
With the expiring 15-year lease, the price of a $63 million stadium face-lift was shared by taxpayers statewide. This time, county taxpayers will cover $41 million of a $130 million fix-up bill, not much less than the state's $54 million share – although Albany kicks in more for other costs.
And that's just the price of a spiffier stadium. Add taxpayer handouts for the team's “operating” and other expenses, and it inflates the public tab for a 10-year term to a hefty $227 million – $103.4 million from local pockets, $123.5 million from the state.
It is a high price to pay for perennial losers. No wonder why they call the team the Bills – that's what we get stuck with.
Poloncarz basked Friday in the new-lease glow. The shine may dull once county taxpayers realize their cost of keeping the Bills will go up. Local taxpayers will fork over about the same $6.2 million annually they already pay for team expenses. But they also will cover the county's $41 million share of stadium upgrades. The annual payment on a 25-year bond for $41 million, ex-county executive Joel Giambra told me, comes to about $2.5 million. Merry Christmas.
It is further evidence of the monopoly-driven might of the exclusive club of 32 NFL owners, who essentially dictate terms to governments. Even though he is taking a $227 million handout for his private business, the deal lets Ralph Wilson keep the stadium naming rights, worth millions.
Yes, the Bills will foot $35 million of the stadium bill and pay $800,000 annual rent, as opposed to their current squatter's rights. But it is a small price to pay for a sweet deal.
Forget about any economic payback. The consensus of sports economists, based on numerous studies, is a pro football team brings little or no economic boost. The team's value is in water-cooler conversation and whatever communal validation comes with an NFL connection.
“There really is no economic impact,” said Zimbalist, author of several books on sports economics. “That's not what a team does for you.”
Officials on Friday raised the possibility of a new stadium at lease's end. Given economic realities, I saw it as a sugarplum dangled to distract fans from the high price of a short-term lease, and the dim prospects for the team's long-term future here.
“A new stadium would help a bit with revenue, but not sufficiently for [the team] to stay,” said Zimbalist. “It's just not a city with a good corporate base and a lot of wealthy citizens. That's the problem with Buffalo.”
As if we needed reminding.
Taxpayers just bought themselves an expensive Christmas present. At these prices, one Super Bowl might not be enough.