Erie County Seeking Relocation Buyout In Bills Stadium Lease Negotiation

Matt Warren, Buffalo Rumblings

Erie County is said to be looking for a buyout clause in a new lease for Ralph Wilson Stadium that could exceed $100 million if the Buffalo Bills relocate to another city under current or future ownership.

Both Erie County and the Buffalo Bills have set the beginning of training camp as the target date to reach a new lease agreement. With the Bills taking up shop at St. John Fisher a week from this Thursday, time is running out on that timeline, and details are starting to emerge as to some of the major sticking points.

In today's Buffalo News, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz presented some specific measures he was looking for in the new lease. Among the talking points was a request by the county that the Bills sign a written agreement that they wouldn't relocate during the life of the lease. In lieu of that, the county may ask for a relocation fee - like the city of Jacksonville holds with the Jaguars - topping $100 million. (Cue Dr. Evil.)

"That's all part of the negotiations," Poloncarz said when asked about assurances that could be part of a lease deal currently being negotiated. "I want to ensure that we have a lease that keeps the Bills here for many years to come."

With the county and state prepared to potentially pay over $200 million, asking the Bills to come up with more than half of that taxpayer money in order to leave is a way the politicians can protect their investment. The $100 million figure also represents a far greater figure than has been in place in past lease agreements. The News notes that the current lease buyout could have gone as high as $30 million, but was reduced every year.

After spending close to $1 billion on the NFL franchise, will a new ownership group want to plunk another $100 million on relocating the team? Terrence Gilbride, an attorney with the law firm Hodgson Russ, who represented Erie County during the last negotiations, says that's the point.

"That's always the issue: how big is big?" said Gilbride. "You want to structure it in such a way that the economic damages are significant enough that they would deter somebody from doing it, but at those numbers, the breakage fees have to be really significant."

Another factor in the huge buyout for current owner Ralph Wilson is the money his heirs are set to receive in the team's sale. Will his family be able to get top dollar for the franchise when the new owners know there is another $100 million coming out of their pockets to move the team?

"His heirs are going to have a harder time selling the franchise if he signs a tight lease that says they're going to play in Buffalo for another 15 years," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College told the News. "So as much as he might love Buffalo and want his legacy to be connected to Buffalo, that would be problematic from his point of view."

That is unless Wilson has a clandestine agreement in place with a local group. In this case, it could mean a very distinct advantage for a group who wishes to keep the team in Buffalo for years to come.

"My sense is that the Bills are not going to be [at the current stadium] for much longer than 5 to 10 years," Zimbalist said. "So any commitment of new funds - whether it's 100 million or 200 million or 300 million - should be made very, very cautiously, particularly in this fiscal environment that we're in. People should not say, 'OK, we'll invest 200 now, but that means that in five or 10 years, we'll be able to get the Bills to sign a 30-year lease.'"

The current lease on Ralph Wilson Stadium expires at the end of the 2012 season.

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