The Billion Dollar Question

The Billion Dollar Question

The Billion Dollar Question
June 15, 2014

Russ Brandon had grown exasperated with the question. 

He had heard it countless times as Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson’s health failed in recent years. Age appeared to have finally caught up with the father of Western New York football after a broken hip in 2011 and an infection in 2012 left the 94-year-old hospitalized. Now here the Bills president and CEO was standing on a dais with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, delivering what was supposed to be an early present four days before Bills fans awoke on Christmas morning 2012. 

After a 20-minute address to the media about the freshly minted lease deal between the Bills and county and state officials to keep the team in suburban Buffalo for 10 years and spend $130 million—much of it public money—on stadium upgrades for the “fan experience” at the 40-year-old stadium, Brandon fielded the inevitable question wearily. 

“With all due respect for Mr. Wilson’s health—and we wish him another 30 years,” a reporter began as Brandon drew a breath and sighed, “can you talk about, to the fans, what succession plans there are, should Mr. Wilson pass, [which is] ... the fear of every Bills fan?” 

Brandon was polite but blunt in his response. 

“I focus on the here and now, and Ralph Wilson is the Hall of Fame owner of the Buffalo Bills,” he said. “The question becomes tiresome. I understand it, but it becomes tiresome. Mr. Wilson’s loyalty is unmatched [by] any owner in professional sports. And I think we should be here today to applaud him.” 

A year and a half later, the here and now is exactly what Brandon didn’t want to discuss. Wilson died in March at the age of 95. With his death, the floodgates of speculation opened, with the foremost question for Bills fans being not necessarily Who will become the new owner of the team? but rather Where will those owners have the team play? 

That’s the question that elected officials are likely to have a hand in. And if they don’t try to answer it in a way that appeases Western New Yorkers, their political careers may be at stake. 

To grasp how politics will steer the discussions about where the Bills will play their home games in the decades to come, it is first necessary to understand the politics currently binding the Bills to the small suburban town of Orchard Park, southeast of Buffalo. 

The 10-year lease announced that pre-Christmas day in 2012 was heralded as a commitment to keeping the Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium, the 73,000-seat football coliseum named after the team’s late owner. During the first seven years of the agreement, the Bills are virtually locked into staying put by a $400 million penalty if they break the deal. In the last three years, the team could buy out the lease for $28.4 million. 

But the lease isn’t just a contract to play in the building. The deal included a sweetheart pot of taxpayer funds to go toward $130 million in stadium renovations planned to be completed by August of this year, in time for the start of the pre-season. The team ended up with the cheapest part of the tab, agreeing to spend $35 million, whereas the state signed on to chip in $54 million, with the county ponying up the remaining $41 million. 

The agreement also established the New Stadium Working Group and Fund to explore the potential for the construction of a new stadium somewhere in Western New York. That working group includes members of the Bills, the state (including outgoing Lt. Gov. Duffy, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster) and Erie County (including Poloncarz, Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new lieutenant governor running mate, former Rep. Kathy Hochul). 

At the time, with Wilson as the team’s owner, the deal looked like a long-term embrace by the franchise of Bills-crazed Western New York. Brandon called it a shining example of Wilson’s commitment to the area, for which Cuomo thanked the owner. 

But with Wilson gone, will Donald Trump, Jon Bon Jovi or Tom Golisano show the same commitment? That is where a new stadium—likely incentivized with taxpayer money—is all but certain to play a key role in the decision process.

Despite his trouncing Buffalo businessman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino in the general election, Cuomo’s weak spot in his 2010 campaign was Western New York, even with Duffy, the former mayor of Rochester, on his ticket. In 2014 conventional wisdom is that Cuomo wants to crush his Republican challenger, Rob Astorino, in every area of the state—a feat he can accomplish only by significantly improving upon his numbers in the eight-county region, and a goal for which he has spent the last four years preparing. 

Cuomo has been highly visible in Western New York since his election, most prominently with his Buffalo Billion Investment Development Plan, an initiative that has already brought millions of dollars into the region and given the City of Buffalo a much needed shot of optimism after decades of decline. While the promised “Billion” from the state is still a major topic of discussion, it has been overshadowed since Wilson’s death by the fate of the Bills. 

The sale of the team is not necessarily where the governor or other elected officials will be made or broken in the eyes of Western New Yorkers. But political ramifications are possible down the road, depending on which ownership group wins the bidding war. 

Of those who have expressed interest in purchasing the team, Golisano, the former Buffalo Sabres owner, Trump, the billionaire celebrity who has reportedly always wanted to own a football team, and current Sabres owner Terry Pegula have all been named as possible saviors as far as those who want to keep the team in Buffalo are concerned. 

It is Bon Jovi who has given fans and politicians cause for alarm. The multiplatinum rocker has teamed up with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs, to emerge as serious contenders in the Bills sweepstakes. The consortium is looking to move the team to Toronto, a Canadian megamarket where the NFL could conceivably make the biggest splash if it moved a franchise north of the border to become the first non-United States-based team in the league’s history. 

Some insiders involved with putting together bids for the team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to hurt their prospects for coming out on top in the process, have expressed the belief that the Wilson family, which inherited the Bills after its patriarch’s death, will go for the highest offer, regardless of where it comes from or the buyer’s future plans for the team. These insiders also say that the winning bid could end up at more than $1 billion, with a new stadium projected to run close to an additional $1 billion down the road. Last August Forbes magazine valued the Bills at $870 million, with revenue of $256 million, making the franchise the 30th most valuable of the 32 teams in the NFL. By comparison, the Cleveland Browns, currently the 22nd most valuable franchise in the league at $1.005 billion, sold for $1 billion in 2012. 

The Wilson trust has hired a pair of New York City firms to be financial and legal advisers to oversee the sale of the team. Up until last week they reportedly were putting together information for interested buyers, which would then be reviewed before bids are submitted. 

If the fate of the Bills is not sealed by the time of the upcoming statewide election in November, insiders say where the process stands could impact voters’ decisions in Western New York—with fans going to the polls to punish officials they perceive not to be giving their all to preserve the Bills’ future in Buffalo. Republican political operative Michael Caputo— who served as Paladino’s campaign manager in 2010 and who is part of the team aiding Trump as he considers buying the team—said he does not believe the speed with which the bidding process will unfold depends on politicians’ involvement, although it could still become a campaign issue in this year’s gubernatorial contest. 

“The interesting angle I see is there are many tools at Governor Cuomo’s disposal, including the power of the bully pulpit,” he said. “Conversely, the Republican nominee might be more cautious. Politicizing the Bills would have a downside.” 

Caputo said Astorino has to walk a fine line after offending a number of Western New Yorkers with his criticisms of the governor’s Buffalo Billion initiative. Astorino has questioned the development plan’s long-term stability, and last month said that just throwing tax dollars at the region wasn’t going to help revive it—a comment that drew the ire of area residents and officials and was widely treated as tone-deaf, Caputo said. 

While the Wilson trust, NFL and the public vet prospective owners, new stadium locations in the region are being explored simultaneously by politicians, developers and potential bidders. Though Ralph Wilson Stadium was only built back in 1973, the NFL is currently experiencing a new arena craze, with 11 new football palaces opening since 2000, another set to open this year in San Francisco and yet another planned within the decade for Minneapolis. New stadiums have also become more mixed-use by design, as opposed to purely about the gridiron, opening up additional revenue sources for the owners and the communities in which they are located. For example, the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, which opened in 2002, is now surrounded by an array of entertainment and shopping sites— not unlike one of the plans proposed for a Bills stadium along Buffalo’s waterfront, which would include a convention center and retail outlets. 

Fiscal conservatives warn that the notion of the state and local governments having to fund a new stadium in order to keep the team in Western New York is dangerous, however. The Empire Center’s E.J. McMahon scoffed at the idea that without a new stadium the Bills’ new owners will walk off with the team either in 2020, when they would no longer have to pay such a stiff moving penalty, or when the current lease expires in 2023. McMahon highlighted the many millions of dollars being invested in upgrades to Ralph Wilson Stadium before pointing out the precedent for major league teams—the San Francisco Giants, for example—to build their own stadiums without taxpayer subsidies (though the Giants did receive some tax abatements and infrastructure upgrades). Gillette Stadium was built entirely with private money, and for just $325 million, far less than the $1 billion figure floated as the cost of a new Western New York football destination. 

Cuomo has indicated that he too would prefer this approach, saying earlier this month that if the team’s new owners said they would not stay in Buffalo unless a new stadium were built, he would be cautious about a course of action that would cost taxpayers money. However, even if the stadium were to be constructed completely with private funding, the state would likely have to chip in for new transportation infrastructure to help 80,000 fans flow easily in and out of the new location on any given Sunday. 

Though state and local governments are not likely to write a blank check for the new owner just to keep the team in Western New York, some sort of public-private stadium financing deal could be a viable option to keep the Bills in the area long-term. There is already some precedent for public-private stadium deals with Yankee Stadium and Citi Field in New York City, though McMahon was quick to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right. If you watch a game at either of those places, all the expensive seats are empty, and the parking garage at Yankee Stadium is going broke.” 

Golisano, one of the potential buyers, said recently that he believed the team needed a new stadium, and intimated that government might be willing to pay for it. During a recent public appearance at a high school in Rochester, Golisano said, “My guess, and it’s strictly a guess, is the stadium will be covered. I don’t know if it’ll have a sliding roof or just a permanent roof, but my guess is it will be covered. And the state government, our governor and some of our U.S. senators are very much in favor of this happening.” 

Former congressman, assemblyman and Erie County legislator Tom Reynolds said it will take long-term planning coordinated between the team’s new owners and the community and the state to figure out which requirements to build a new stadium can legitimately be met. 

“Make no mistake about it, Western New York will ask its elected representatives to be a key part of that,” he said. 

Locations outside Erie County have also been weighed as possible landing spots for a new stadium. They include sites as far east as the city of Batavia in Genesee County—which is halfway between Buffalo and Rochester with plenty of land but little infrastructure, and a longer drive time from Southern Ontario, a major market for the Bills—and as far north as Niagara Falls—a location whose feasibility is adversely impacted by the major traffic headaches that would ensnarl game attendees who would have to cross Grand Island, the halfway point between Niagara Falls and Buffalo. In addition to Toronto, another proposed location in Canada is St. Catherines, Ontario, the halfway point between Niagara Falls and the City of Hamilton. 

There is zero doubt that the Bills choosing to stay or go once a new ownership group is in place will have implications for the region for decades to come. For the elected officials in the thick of the conversation, the same principle holds true. 

“I don’t think anybody wants to be known as—[for example]—the county executive that let the Bills go,” Caputo said. “Those kinds of labels would put you out of politics for the remainder of your career.” 

To this point, if there are any elected officials who are indifferent to whether the Bills decamp for another city, they have not announced their position publicly. Beyond not wanting to be branded the official who let the team go, electeds will likely include in their calculations Buffalo’s blossoming economic and cultural revitalization, which could be adversely impacted by the monetary and psychological blow of losing the city’s beloved Bills. Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, whose district includes Orchard Park and Ralph Wilson Stadium, said that having a major sports team like the Bills is important to Buffalo because it has taken other major cities that have lost franchises years to overcome the loss. 

“Eventually, even if they’re given another team by the NFL like Cleveland, a stadium follows,” Kearns said. “So we’re trying to be proactive. I do think elected officials at the highest levels see the importance of keeping the Bills in Western New York.” 

Reynolds, who coordinated with then Gov. George Pataki on a round of Ralph Wilson Stadium upgrades approved in 1998, said elected officials in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives will likely play some sort of role in trying to keep the Bills in Western New York, though a new stadium deal will be transacted more between the team and local and state officials. The stakes will not be dissimilar from those that drove the 1998 renovations, when Reynolds asked Pataki, “Do you want to have the Buffalo Bills leave on your watch because of stadium inadequacy?” Two things instill pride in Western New Yorkers, Reynolds said: the Bills and Roswell Park Cancer Center—so it remains up to officials to keep both thriving. 

“I believe everybody has got skin in the game for their own political futures, [based] on what success can be [for] a combination package that satisfies new ownership that Buffalo is the place to be,” he said. 

To come out as winners, everyone needs to be in lockstep, Caputo said, from the executive chamber down to local leaders and the fans. There seems to be unanimity thus far in terms of wanting to keep the Bills in the region, though the stadium process has shown signs of fragmentation. 

Kearns has been vocal in calling out the New Stadium Working Group for using executive sessions to skirt the Open Meetings Law (OML) and air their deliberations before the public. He has repeatedly insisted that taxpayers, including the so-called 12th Man—the name given to Bills fans— be allowed to know what is going on in the process, and he has introduced a bill in the Assembly, co-sponsored in the state Senate by Patrick Gallivan, to force the group to comply with the OML. 

To Kearns, a former ticket taker at the Ralph, as the stadium is affectionately known, the one constant for the Buffalo region through the loss of industry and population over the last 50 years has been the football team. It is this strong bond between the team and its fans—many of whom will be eligible to cast votes in the fall—that has so many Western New Yorkers and their representatives in government on edge about what the future holds. 

“I think we’re doing a lot of things that we’re supposed to be doing,” Kearns said. “But the problem is we’re doing them privately and secretly behind closed doors. And that doesn’t breed confidence among the fans.” 

Matthew Hamilton