The city of Buffalo, western New York, and its NFL fans have had a 55-year long love affair with the Buffalo Bills football team. The relationship was born when pioneering businessman, Ralph Wilson, established a franchise in the fledgling American Football League in Buffalo. The Bills became part of the civic fabric of western New York with massive support and adoring fans. Their loyalty is exactly what the NFL looks for when it thinks about placing franchises. The new economics of football – dominating large local media markets, new stadiums with naming rights, luxury boxes and sponsorship, and memorabilia sales – threaten the ability of a smaller market like Buffalo to compete.
The city of Buffalo has a population of roughly 260,000 people. The larger metro area expands to about 1.2 million. This is the second smallest NFL market with only Green Bay being smaller. The average attendance last year was 66,000 fans which placed the Bills 19th in the NFL. The stadium was built in 1973 and lacks the revenue generating features of newer stadiums. There are $130 million of new improvements which have been completed, but it won’t approximate what a new stadium will yield. Buffalo has been hard hit by the economic problems of the recession and has many less corporations than other markets to provide support. Waiting in the wings as a possible new home is a Canadian city to the north.
Toronto has a population of 2.6 million; the larger metro area compromises 5.5 million people. This makes it the fourth largest city in North America. It is the economic center of Canada, replete with major corporations. The capacity of Rogers Centre where the Toronto Blue Jays and Argonauts play is only 53,000 for football. Some $250 million in renovations are planned. There are also broadcasting issues in respect to lack of exclusivity that the NFL would have to work out with the Canadian television regulators. Outside of Los Angeles, Toronto seems to be the most attractive city in the NFL queue. It should be a compelling candidate for expansion, but the Bills need to stay in Buffalo.
Professional sports are made up of private businesses. Unlike other businesses, however, they claim to have a special right to support and loyalty from a geographical area. They ask for support when they are not winning – they advertise themselves as “Your Buffalo Bills.” I have fought for years for the principal that a team with loyal fans ought not be ripped from their heart for a better economic opportunity. If a team is not profitable and has done everything possible to market and attract support, or if their facility is clearly not competitive – only then should they be allowed to move.
I helped San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan resist a 1992 bid to take the Giants baseball team to Tampa. I helped Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris keep the A’s baseball team in Oakland. I co-Chaired “Save The Rams” to stop the football team from leaving Los Angeles in less successful efforts. Owners buy teams knowing that the leagues have the right to stop them from moving their franchises when it does not serve the interest of the sport.
Owner Ralph Wilson and I shared an interest in not breaking the hearts of loyal fans. We became good friends as I represented Hall of Fame Bills’ DE Bruce Smith and RB Thurman Thomas. He sent me yearly chocolate footballs and postcards from Europe. He loved Buffalo and its fans, and he was adamant that they remain in Buffalo. He took me with him to a civic luncheon where businessmen asked what they could do to help. For the NFL to honor the fans that helped build its current dominance it needs to return that loyalty. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is exploring state help in construction of a new state of the art stadium. The economy of the area can improve. Motivated fans will support the team as never before. More can be done with new ownership to build a vibrant social media presence.
There is only one team that has gone to four consecutive Super Bowls. From QB Jack Kemp to courageous QB Jim Kelly, the Bills have stood for courage and football excellence. Western New York deserves the chance to step up economically and continue this cherished tradition.