I wish we had the chance to vet the guy. To take his measure, to check his motivations, to sign off on his priorities. Because the deciding factor in whether the Buffalo Bills stay or go is the attitude of the next owner.
If his main focus is to compete with the likes of Dallas’s Jerry Jones on the ledger sheet, the 2019 easy-exit window in the Bills’ lease is likely an escape hatch. If, instead, he’d rather beat the Joneses of the NFL on the field instead of at the box office – and if he values ego-strokes and community appreciation as much as dollars – then he’ll likely be happy wallowing long-term in Buffalove.
I think that is what it will come down to.
For some owners, the bottom line is bucks. If we get one of them, we can bid the Bills good-bye. The cold fact is the team will make far more money for an owner in a megatropolis than it will here – new stadium or not.
If, however, the next owner is in it mainly to join the most exclusive club in America; if he is more turned on by gratitude than extra millions; if he can live with an estimated $35 million annual profit; and if he gets off on owning a franchise in a gritty, cold-weather burg, then we’ve got the makings of a long-term relationship.
“Finding a Buffalo-friendly owner is critical” to the Bills staying, said Ted Fay, a sports management professor at SUNY Cortland. “The question is what are the lead motives behind someone’s interest in buying the team? Some people just want to be part of the NFL ‘club,’ and it doesn’t really matter where the location is.”
Measured purely in dollars, the team makes more sense somewhere else. But there are emotional and other considerations.
The circumstance of owner Ralph Wilson’s death less than two years into the 10-year lease buys Buffalo some time. If the team, as expected, is sold by year’s end, it gives Buffalo five years to woo the new owner before the lease’s 2019 easy-exit window opens. It’s enough time to gauge the worth of a new – or improved – stadium plan, to craft a sweeter lease deal and to marinate the next owner in gratitude and good vibes. It’s also time for Los Angeles, Toronto, Portland and other NFL-envious cities to land some other team.
Beyond that, moving the team from a no-frills city that has backed pro football for more than a half-century would be bad PR for the image-obsessed NFL. Departures from Baltimore and Cleveland in past decades – although each team was subsequently replaced – were ugly episodes of abandonment.
“That hardiness, that Northern industrial culture, the ethos of Buffalo – the league needs those franchises to remind people of its roots,” said Fay, who puts the odds of the Bills staying at better than 50-50. “There’s a value to the league, in terms of cultural heritage, that can’t be dismissed.”
But if it’s mainly about the money to the next owner, the Bills in Buffalo are doomed. Sports economists estimate an owner – in sponsorships, advertising, luxury seating and other unshared revenue – could pocket upwards of $20 million more annually in, say, NFL-covetous Los Angeles than here.
The good news is the next owner, or ownership group, can still make a nice buck here. The league’s salary cap puts a ceiling on spending. And the NFL’s monster 2011, $7 billion annual TV/broadcast deal – of which the owners equally split their share – reportedly boosted the Bills’ annual profit into the mid-$30 million range. It’s a nice chunk of change – even for a billionaire.
“Ego for a lot of these guys isn’t about whether Jerry Jones is making $50 million a year more than they are,” noted Fay. “It’s about beating his ass on the field. It all depends on the owner. ... There are issues involved here that sometimes defy a critical analysis.”
Which, if true, is good for Buffalo.
Here’s our ad in the NFL Ownership Classifieds: Wanted – A not-too-greedy billionaire, with a hometown heart.