All of the news about new Bills ownership and new stadiums has me thinking about the future of the team in Buffalo and the city in general. Since this combines my two favorite topics (football and politics) I have to get some of this out. With this being a football site, I'll keep the politics to an acceptable and relevant scope. I really want this to be more of a discussion starter rather than me telling me telling you all what is right, wrong, or feasible (because I really don't know).
Let me start by saying that regardless of the buyer, I don't think that the Bills will leave. I don't think the political climate in NYS or WNY is conducive to letting them leave without a fight and I think the realities of the lease and NRA make it difficult for a new owner to take them away. The only way I could see it would be if the new owner said they were going to keep the team here until the eleventh hour and them changed course and moved them. I see that as a long shot, but not out of the question. Other than that, I can't see anyone buying them with the intention of moving them.
The two groups leading the charge so to speak for keeping the team in Buffalo are the Trump and Golisano groups. I don't believe that Trump would buy the team unless he got a deal on them. I suspect he jumped in to try to be the only person publicly stating he would keep them in Buffalo. Without that being the case, he'll drop out or bid low - either way he's not going to be the next owner. Golisano seems like a legitimate candidate to buy the team, has a plan for a new stadium, and people are talking about him, so this is where I want to focus my attention for this exercise.
A Golisano bid offers the opportunity to opine on the intersection of football, politics, and economic development for the city of Buffalo and this is the point in the road where we should all focus our attention. It's about a football team and winning. It's also about the development of our region. It's also about our elected leaders.
Let's start with football. There are a lot of people who talk about a Golisano-owned Bills team through the lens of his Sabres ownership at the start and at the end. He bought the team out of bankruptcy and made them viable in Buffalo again. He also may ave been looking at the bottom line more than fans would have liked. I personally see it as a little of both. He did the city a great service buying the team and ensuring that it could work in Buffalo. He got them making money and they even won a little bit at first (one of the top teams in the league for a year or two). He also seemed to not like to spend long term on players, give out big contracts, and failed to see and embrace longer term trends in the NHL that ultimately proved to be the team's undoing (like to extend players early to save money on their contract down the road).
I don't think that the money issues would play into a Bills ownership situation. The simple reason being the different economics of the two leagues - in the NHL some teams lose money while others don't. The sport itself isn't as well-developed or well-run as the NFL. In the NFL, each team starts each season with money from the TV contract in hand ($7bn annually divided by 32 teams equals $218,750,000 per team), which more than covers the player expense (salary cap salary plus benefits like medical and 401k that are not part of the cap in the NFL). It probably also covers a good portion of the coach, trainer, GM, and other football personnel staff salaries. That is before you even take into account gate receipts and concessions which are split between the home and visiting team 60/40 on the Tuesday after each game (I work for a financial institution and used to cover a certain NFL team, so I know how the finances of it work out), All of this money means that it's pretty much impossible to lose money with an NFL team today. Golisano won't have to worry about the bottom line if he buys the Bills, just how much money he would make each year. I do hope that he has learned his lesson about long term contracts from his NHL time, but even that is different. He always said he wished everyone was on a one-year contract, so they were paid according to their production ( a very corporate USA mindset). In the NHL contracts are fully guaranteed whereas in the NFL they are not. Maybe that would be enough to satisfy his concerns.
I did initially have reserves on Golisano buying the team and spending money to win, but the more I think about it, the more I think a lot of his Sabres history was a function of that specific situation. The one thing I don't know is how badly he wants to win and at what cost. But we can't know that about anyone until they are on the job.
My bigger concern with Golisano's bid has to do with the non-football-game-playing part of it. He is said to have a developer with land in West Seneca ready to be his partner for a new stadium. This is where I personally start to sour on the whole idea and where the economic development and politics come into it. I don't have a general aversion to spending taxpayer money on a new stadium. It's the way the thing works everywhere else and as is said, you have to pay to play. However, I do think that the government needs to play an active role in the specifics of a new stadium given the amount of money they are going to have to put into it.
First, let's look at the Golisano proposal and what it means outside of him buying the Bills and keeping them in WNY (I understand for some people the fact that he's keeping them here is good enough, but it isn't for me). With him coming into the process with a developer and stadium idea, he is really forcing the hand of government. Will he move the team if he doesn't get his preferred stadium? I don't know. But I do know that his partner - son of the principal of Pyramid - has a tract of land in West Seneca that has been to this point unsuccessfully developed. If the stadium goes through there, it will mean tons of money for him and his dad's company in both percentage of ownership of an NFL team and ownership and government-mandated tenants for his new stadium. Without this deal, that land may be relatively worthless. How do you feel about using government money to make a wealthy land-owner rich in the name of keeping the Bills in this region? This at it's core is a money play, but that doesn't necessarily make it a bad thing. What makes it a potentially bad thing is the lost opportunity this would present.
Let me get away from football, football owners, and football stadiums for a minute. At this moment in the City of Buffalo, we are seeing a push of economic development that we have not seen in my lifetime. I don't want to make it out to be something that it's not and it certainly isn't the rapid growth seen in places like Seattle in the 90s, but it's enough to point the needle up for the city. Money is going into building new buildings, renovating old ones, and people are moving into the city. Things like the medical campus, once done, promise to bring more people into the city daily for work and one would expect that more of them will start living there. People want what Buffalo has - cheap housing, cheap standard of living, manageable neighborhoods, and all with interesting places to be in and see (not to mention I hear people here are really nice).
This is where our new stadium comes into play. We are on the upswing, but that doesn't mean it's a slam dunk. How the stadium is put together is going to play a big role in its success and the financial success of the Bills' new owner. Does a stadium next to a mall, out in the middle of nowhere (sorry West Senecaians), really optimize the opportunity? I don't think so. I don't think "just a football stadium" is going to be successful anywhere, but especially not in the middle of nowhere. If a football stadium was the ticket to successful ancillary development that stretch of seedy motels near the Ralph would have been turned into high rises years ago. Instead it's just kind of a pain in the butt to get to and while the City of Buffalo swings up, that part of Orchard Park swings not.
So do we want another stadium in the middle of some fields that requires a caravan and enough supplies for the Khyber Pass to get to? Why not try for something that brings more than just 10 professional football games per year? I heard the guys on WGR a day or two ago talking about a new stadium and referencing Foxboro and it's bad traffic. I don't care if they are a better team in a bigger city - we do not need to accept bad traffic as part of our new stadium just because they did it. Ours will be newer and should be better.
This is the point where the elected leaders need to negotiate for the best option for the community, not the new owner. The only exception would be if no public money was requested - in that case build it where ever you want.
With all that being said, here is what I believe to be vital to the new stadium and essentially what public money should be conditioned on. These are not tried and tested ideas, but again discussion starters and thoughts to keep in mind.
Transportation: The stadium needs to be car and pedestrian friendly. Somehow public transit needs to be incorporated into the whole picture. This is a theme that ha been talked about more, but with little luster due to the insane costs involved with new or renewed rail. The stadium project with its infrastructure improvements could be the golden opportunity to get some of the city's out-date but still viable railways coordinated and running. A stadium site near Larkinville might allow for an extension of the subway to the renovated area out there as well as the stadium from downtown. There is also the potential to get a rail stop there (or possibly at the old Central Terminal) for the Amtrak train (just think of being able to ride to and from a Bills game on the Amtrak train from Rochester or Syracuse without taking your car!).
Multi-Use: The stadium should have another purpose besides the 10 professional football games per year (hopefully 12, but that's another thing). The easy checks would be any college football program in the area and some high school games. Those should be givens and are no place to stop. Let's talk Convention Center and concert venue. But we can't stop there either. To continue a theme that is bandied about by the locals, let's work on the amateur sporting events too. Can we figure out a way to use this same field for lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, etc? How about any sporting event that doesn't take place on Sundays in the fall? These events could work to support the venue while football is out of season.
Location: A 10 day a year venue does little for the surrounding area, but when you get that days of use number up to 80 to 150 days per year, people are going to want to have lodging and entertainment options nearby. West Seneca can't support that type of visitor load, but the city can. Hotels will fill up, restaurants will prosper, and cars will see a better clientele with more money (i.e. the semi-vacationing out-of-towner). Nothing against the locals, but you need people coming in from outside the city and region to spend money here. A site in the City of Buffalo allows for vacationers to come in and park their car once. From there, public transport and walking get them to different places to spend money and see the sites. They become a captive audience in the city and commerce sprouts up to fulfill their various needs from rickshaw taxis to one-day expensive spots car rentals. The people leave, but the money stays.
Super Bowl?: This is a long shot, but has to be considered. The stadium needs to be build with the intention of hosting a Super Bowl. I know about the hotel room issue and the weather. The hotel room part may clear itself up over the next 8 to 10 years. If global warming doesn't turn Buffalo into Miami by then (joking of course) a retractable roof stadium is always an option. This is an event that would generate a lot of money and goodwill and would offer the ultimate return on the state and counties investment.
Those are my thoughts on the matter and the basic reasoning for why a Golisano bid would in my mind be less concerning for the on-field product than the missed economic and development opportunities. I appreciate your comments and look forward to reading them.