My colleague Russ Andolina made a spot-on observation regarding the Buffalo Bills organization yesterday. “They’re obligated to match any good move with at least three corresponding horrible ones.” If you look at the team’s offseason prior to July 1st you might’ve contradicted that by pointing out the $100 million contract given to Mario Williams along with the additions of Mark Anderson, Vince Young and the team resigning Stevie Johnson and Fred Jackson. The Bills’ front office has indeed had an extremely successful offseason by adding talent and building a contender in the process but don’t let them off the hook so easily.
In recent weeks the Bills have announced multiple “business policy decisions” that have delineated this organization since its inception. A few months ago team CEO Russ Brandon announced the five year extension of the Toronto Buffalo Series which will continue to see the Bills play one regular season home game across the border in that pathetic excuse for a sports arena called the Rogers Centre (there are few things that piss me off as much as the way Canadians spell center by the way). Brandon was a key component in the original deal penned in 2007 and reiterated in May this year that “…the continuation of the games in Toronto is a crucial step in our ongoing efforts to regionalize our franchise” and “the regionalization process remains vital to keeping our franchise in Western New York.” Brandon’s one of the best in the business in marketing his product and admittedly has done a great job with the “regionalization” of the franchise. The pundits out there will acknowledge that having a strong presence in Southern Ontario and the surrounding Western New York region is vital in being profitable for the small market organization. However, for all intents and purposes the Buffalo Toronto Series has thus far seen minimal success in terms of ticket sales and introducing a fan base to the greater Toronto-metro area. The only thing you see more than open seats at the Rogers Centre are “fans” wearing NFL merchandise of every NFL team besides the Bills. While the franchise certainly came out on top of the original agreement with the $70 million-plus guaranteed up front, the new proposed deal is likely to be a significant decrease in up-front money and depend more heavily on revenue generated on a game-by-game basis.
Even with the revenue generated from the Toronto Series Ralph Wilson and the Bills’ front office has no shame in asking for a massive handout from Western New York taxpayers. With a little more than one year left on their current lease with the city of Orchard Park (expires 7/31/2013) Wilson is asking for taxpayers to fund the majority of an estimated $200-220 million in modernizations and repairs to Ralph Wilson Stadium. When Jerry Jones built his palace in Arlington he funded the majority of the $1 Billion-plus construction himself. While it’s understandable that Wilson may not be willing to fund the entire $200 million-plus construction, he seems unwilling to allocate a substantial amount of the costs from his considerable wealth to fund the project. Here’s an idea Ralph, sell the naming rights to your stadium to help alleviate some of the tax burden on your loyal customers. When Jim Irsay built his modernized stadium in Indy he didn’t stick his name on it to try to build on his legacy. No, he sold the rights to Lucas Oil to the tune of $122 million over 20 years, offering significant tax subsidy relief to his loyal followers.
If asking for the massive tax subsidy to pay for the renovations wasn’t bad enough, Wilson and the rest of the front office gave their loyal followers another swift shot to the marbles by announcing they wouldn’t be adopting the league’s new policy on a relaxed blackout rule. The new rule stipulated that any NFL team could adopt the new policy of only being required to sell 85% of non-premium tickets in order for home games to be televised locally but opted to keep the former policy of selling out the entire stadium in order for local residents not in attendance to watch the action. Brandon explained that “as a small-market franchise, we need people in the building. That drives all of our additional business platforms…” Representative Brian Higgins called the move “somewhat short-sighted” on the Bills part and how televising non-sold-out home games wouldn’t just be “something good for their extremely loyal fans” but would also “position themselves for greater future success by making the product accessible to a larger segment of the population.” Higgins also hits on the most important fact that the real money in the NFL today comes from television revenue and effectively marketing your product to a mass audience. As a former and again soon-to-be season ticket holder you may say that this decision doesn’t affect me as much because I’ll be at all the games. I tend to think of the bigger picture however and look to friends and family members who can’t go to the games, either due to age or disability, but are still just as loyal to this organization as any season ticket holder.
The time has come to call for accountability for this organization. While it’s been a better offseason than most in recent memory the revelations of the last few weeks have cast a shadow on a promising year. The continuation of the Toronto Series, the rejection of the new proposed blackout rule and Wilson’s inability to open up his wallet to alleviate the tax burden on his local supporters has added to the organization’s reputation of poor business practices and outright ignorance for the community at large. Before you agree to open up your wallets to renovate Wilson’s namesake consider the facts and force the Bills to be accountable for their actions.