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Congressman Higgins: Bills Should Be Community Owned

Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) has written a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging the NFL to consider allowing its franchises to be community-owned. Amending the NFL's constitution, which currently prohibits NFL teams from being owned on a community basis, is Higgins' ultimate goal. This request comes days after Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson finalized a deal that will allow his Bills to play eight games in Toronto over the next five years - a deal that has raised concern amongst the Buffalo community as to the future viability of our beloved franchise.

"The Bills are a regional treasure and part of the fabric of our community," said Congressman Higgins. "Community ownership in the Bills would give the Buffalo fans that built this franchise a real role in steering the future of this team."

Higgins posits two scenarios: one in which the team is completely owned by shareholders ("Full Community Ownership"), and one in which the team has one dominant shareholder, with the rest of the shares publicly owned ("Hybrid Community Ownership"). The idea is for the Bills to become as entrenched in the Buffalo community as the Packers are in Green Bay, Wisconsin (the Packers are the only community-owned team in the league). A hybrid community ownership model could also be beneficial for local Buffalo investors interested in keeping the team in Buffalo - specifically, former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.

The Green Bay Model
In his letter to Goodell, Higgins makes it very clear that he would like to see the Bills owned much like the Packers are owned. Green Bay remains the only club community-owned, as they were structured in this manner prior to the NFL changing its constitutional guidelines. Said Higgins in his letter:

Prior to the adoption of the NFL's prohibition on community ownership, fans in Green Bay purchased the Packers, to the tremendous benefit of the team and the community. The result has been one of the most stable and successful franchises in history, as the Packers have become a financial asset to the league far beyond its ability to raise revenues locally. And as the Packers have demonstrated, community ownership leads to a level of community pride and team support unrivaled in professional sports.

For a much more detailed account of Green Bay's ownership structure, be sure to check out a report on the matter, written this past summer, by Brandon at Acme Packing Company. His article explains in full how Green Bay's franchise has been so successful despite the incredibly small market the team plays in.

What is "Hybrid Community Ownership"?
Of the two scenarios Higgins is proposing, a Hybrid Community Ownership model could potentially be a saving grace for the Bills in Buffalo. In said scenario, the team would be publicly owned - however, one person or a partnership would purchase the majority of the available shares (Higgins proposes 51% as an example). This would provide the NFL with a community-entrenched owner, who would buy the controlling stake in the team at a highly reduced price (the Bills are currently worth $821 million, according to Forbes).

With one controlling owner, the Buffalo area would be allowed to purchase the remaining 49% of shares. The controlling owner would oversee day-to-day business and team operations - much like Mr. Wilson does now - but the community would have enough power to veto a potential relocation of the franchise. (Higgins, as an example, suggests a 75% vote of all shareholders would be necessary to move the team.) The Hybrid model would be ideal to keep the team in Buffalo, and also allows the Bills to preserve its current ties with the community as well as Toronto. It allows the league to turn to one man/group as the team owner for all league affairs. It would take a radical amendment, sure, but it's win-win both for the NFL and for the small-market teams that play in it.

The Jim Kelly Angle
It has long been rumored - and confirmed by the man himself - that former Bill and current Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly is highly interested in finding a way to keep the Bills in Buffalo. Kelly would conceivably put together an investment group that would make a bid to buy the Bills after Ralph Wilson's death. Higgins' Hybrid Community suggestion plays right into Kelly's hands - it reduces the price that he and an investment group would have to pay, and it would allow Kelly's group to accomplish its goal of keeping the team in the city he once played for.

Clearly, if the team were to be publicly owned in any way, there would be no way to guarantee that Kelly and an investment group of his liking would get the majority share. The community-owned aspect, however, would theoretically give the Buffalo community the chance to veto any proposed relocation that a non-Kelly (or non-Buffalo-oriented) "owner" would want to make.

According to this report from Buffalo Business First, Commissioner Goodell plans on responding to the congressman's letter quickly.