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The sale of the Buffalo Bills kicked off last week with only three known players on the field and an audience of millions blindfolded.

Bills fanatics in Buffalo and football fans nationwide know that Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, developer Donald Trump and a Toronto group fronted by rocker Jon Bon Jovi submitted initial bids for the team. But experts in the secretive multi-billion-dollar business known as the National Football League cautioned that fans can’t see the real action in a game that’s just beginning.

While Pegula and the Toronto group appeared to be the early front-runners to some experts, they stressed that other, unknown bidders could still submit serious offers.

Then could come the bidding war, which may end with the Bills valued at far more than the oft-quoted, never substantiated figure of $870 million put forth by Forbes magazine.

And with the bidding war could come a tug-of-war between the trust that owns the team, which clearly wants to sell it quickly, and the NFL, which is very selective and not always prompt in admitting new owners to its elite circle.

How long will all of this take?

“I don’t think it will be years,” said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp, a sports business consulting firm. “But months? Maybe.”

A trust set up by their late owner, Ralph C. Wilson Jr., now owns the Bills. The team has announced that Mary Wilson, Wilson’s widow, is now the controlling owner.

Through its investment banker, Morgan Stanley, the trust set a preliminary deadline of last Tuesday for the first round of bids, although that deadline does not appear to be hard and fast, with other bids still possible.

That’s just about all that’s known about the sales process. The four-member trust remains silent as well as anonymous.

Meanwhile, the only two bidders who have been talking are Trump – who has stressed that he will not overpay for the team – and Bon Jovi, who sent an open letter to Bills fans today stressing that he does not want to move the team to Toronto.

So who’s the front-runner?

Sports industry experts are reluctant to name one, but some tend to discount Trump’s bid.

“Trump is probably blowing smoke, so his prospects are dim,” said John Vrooman, a sports economics professor at Vanderbilt University.

He views the Pegulas and the Toronto group, which is headed by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment executive Larry Tannenbaum and fronted by Bon Jovi, as the most serious players at this point.

“These appear to be the only local heroes with enough big boy pop to pull it off,” Vrooman said.

Asked if there might be other bidders, Jason A. Winfree, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Idaho who has written extensively about the NFL, said: “Who knows? ... Sometimes there’s a surprise.”

An additional bid could come from former Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano, who, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, continues to monitor the process and will decide soon what bid – if any – to submit.

On top of that, other bids already could have been submitted, or may still be coming, from prospective owners who are respecting the NFL’s penchant for secrecy.

“I didn’t believe it when I first saw there were only three, and I still don’t believe it,” Ganis said. “I’ve heard nothing that would cause me to believe or rely on that number.”

Then again, it’s highly unlikely that there will be a large number of serious bids, Vrooman said.

“There may be silent bidders in this auction, but this is real big boy football, and the bidders with enough chips to play the game are few,” he said.

A bidding war?

It’s very possible, though, that at least two potential owners emerge that have the financial resources to buy the Bills and the guts to put a lot of money on the table.

If that’s the case, NFL experts cautioned, the preliminary bids submitted last week could prove to be nonbinding ballpark figures.

“As they go through the process, the prices can go up or down from the indicative bids,” as more due diligence takes place, Ganis said. “Then the finalists will meet with management, and people can get more excited or less excited.”

At this point, it’s impossible to know how much the Bills eventually will sell for, said sources who discount everything from the numbers attached to last week’s bids to Forbes magazine’s estimate that the Bills are worth $870 million.

While news reports pegged the Pegula’s bid at $1.3 billion, two sources with intimate knowledge of the Bills sale process said all the bid figures reported last week were inaccurate.

And Winfree, the author of a book chapter called “NFL Franchise Values, Locations and Stadium Economics,” said the Forbes estimate is likely inaccurate as well.

“They’re just guesses,” Winfree said of the Forbes numbers. “They don’t have all the data for the team.”

Prospective team owners get to see a team’s financial records, however, and that means the actual sale price of a team is often far different from the Forbes estimate, Winfree said. For example, the sale of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons was far lower than the Forbes estimate, while baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers sold for well above the Forbes price tag.

It’s also difficult to know whether Buffalo’s small-market status will affect the Bills sale in any substantive way – or whether it will prompt the top bidder to want to move the team to a larger, more lucrative market.

“I think these things are very hard to predict,” Winfree said.

Proof of that, he said, can be found in the 2008 move of the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City – a smaller market.

One factor boding in Buffalo’s favor is the economic structure of the NFL, which is more reliant on television revenue and less on other income streams than other sports leagues, Winfree added.

Other factors also work against prospective NFL markets such as Toronto or Los Angeles.

For one thing, the Bills are in the second year of an extremely restrictive 10-year lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium that calls for a $400 million penalty if the team is to be moved in any year other than 2020, when it falls for one year to $28.4 million.

That $28.4 million figure is “chump change,” and waiting until 2020 to move the team would give the Toronto group time to build a new stadium, Vanderbilt’s Vrooman noted.

Then again, the Toronto group faces “significant side charges” that could put the more lucrative Toronto market – North America’s fifth-largest TV market – on a more equal footing with Buffalo, the 55th largest, Vrooman noted.

For one thing, the NFL would charge a relocation fee of $100 million or more, he said.

And beyond that, Vrooman said new stadiums in huge markets like Toronto are usually privately financed by the team owners, whereas stadiums in smaller communities such as Buffalo are usually built with public financing – meaning any group that would want to move the Bills to a bigger town would have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars more.

Combining those costly factors, the cash flow of a Toronto team could be comparable to that of the Bills in Buffalo, Vrooman said, thereby negating any incentive for a move.

Different time pressures

So when will all this be settled? It’s hard to say for sure, largely because the trust that’s selling the Bills is likely facing very different time pressures than are the NFL team owners who must ratify the sale.

Wilson died March 25, and his heirs moved quickly to sell the team soon afterwards. David H. Alexander, an estate attorney with Gross Shuman Brizdle & Gilfillan in Buffalo, said there may be an urgent reason for the Wilson trust to sell the team quickly.

“Estate taxes are due nine months from the date of death,” making them due for Wilson’s estate in December, Alexander said.

Given that the Wall Street Journal reported that the Wilson estate recently sold four of his prized works of art for a total of $35.6 million, it seems that Wilson’s heirs may be in a rush to sell off assets, Alexander added.

If that is the case, the trust could settle on a new owner very quickly.

The trouble is, the most prized asset – the Bills – will take longer to sell than a couple of Monets.

That’s because the NFL, while possibly aiming to approve a sale at the October ownership meetings, may not be in as big a rush to complete the deal as the Wilson trust is. NFL experts said the league’s vetting and approval process for the new owner could drag on for weeks or months.

“The NFL is the most thorough league in due diligence,” Vrooman said. “So the approval may take time, but not because of the power of the two apparent bidders, but because of financial (debt/equity) structure of the deal.”

Ganis said the next step in the process usually involves vetting various proposals by lawyers and trustees. They will examine the bid’s amount, source, structure, debt requirements, people involved, and sources of acquisition funds, he said. Those invited to continue are then escorted to a “data room,” which Ganis said formerly involved a conference room in a law office where a prospective buyer would examine reams of legal and financial records.

Now the process is basically electronic.

“During that time, there will be a lot of back and forth,” Ganis said. “Then they will draft a purchase agreement after a lot of interaction between the lawyers.”

He said the process then seeks final bids, followed by NFL approval, and then a closing.

But the process can also prove exhausting, Ganis said. It involves not only bidders but lawyers, accountants, investment bankers and commitment fees. It all costs lots of money.

“There are lots of people involved,” he said. “It costs millions just to lose.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

email: jzremski@buffnews.com