Relocation debate mounts in Buffalo

The Bills have a passionate fan base, but more lucrative markets are a threat to lure the team away. AP Photo/Paul Spinelli

A week ago, relocation wasn't on the minds of most Buffalo Bills fans.

Following the death of owner Ralph Wilson last Tuesday, it's an issue that the city, the team and its fans must now face. While the complicated process of finding a new owner and the Bills' current stadium lease will prevent relocation in the immediate future, the long-term outlook of the team is still uncertain.

Wilson's death has magnified a debate that will only sharpen in the coming years. Some, like former Buffalo mayor Tony Masiello, say the Bills are supported well enough to remain in the region.

"There are a lot of good reasons to have a football team in Western New York," Masiello told ESPN on Monday. "It's a regionally based franchise with loyal, committed fans. We've produced in the past and we'll produce in the future."

Others, like Buffalo News metro columnist Donn Esmonde, say that business interests will shift the team to a more lucrative market.

"Enjoy the Bills here while you can," Esmonde wrote Sunday. "I like a long shot as much as the next guy. But let’s not kid ourselves. The economics of the NFL long ago whizzed past our smaller-market, economically stagnant burg."

The NFL is not fond of relocation. League policy "favors stable team community relations" and states that "no club has an entitlement to relocate simply because it perceives an opportunity for enhanced club revenues in another location." Ultimately, there needs to be the right set of circumstances and a new owner must clear several hurdles before moving a team, including a three-quarters vote of NFL owners.

In proposing relocation, teams must consider 12 factors, per NFL policy.

The factor that protects Buffalo the most is "[T]he extent to which fan loyalty to and support for the club has been demonstrated during the team's tenure in the current community." There is little doubt that the Bills have a passionate following in the area. Even though the team struggles to sell out some of its home games, the Bills play in the NFL's 11th-largest stadium. Comparing stadium capacity to regional population, there is relatively strong support for the team.

"Sunday in and Sunday out, there are 72,000, 73,000 people in [those] stands," said Masiello, who served as Buffalo's mayor from 1994 to 2005.

Yet, that could potentially be dwarfed by greater opportunities elsewhere. Another factor listed is "whether the club proposes to relocate to a community or region in which no other member club of the League is located; and the demographics of the community to which the team proposes to move." Los Angeles, for example, is the second-most populous city in the country. It doesn't have an NFL team.

The NFL doesn't want to lose its strong support in Buffalo and the Bills moving would mean a hit to the NFL's income from the region. But the NFL also wants to make soccer fans in London into NFL fans, and make money from them. It wants to sell luxury boxes and club seats to rich corporations in Los Angeles, and make money from them, too. Why let the Lakers and Dodgers have the exclusive rights to those companies' pockets?

"Our region doesn’t have a single Fortune 500 company or an abundance of private wealth," Esmonde wrote. "Owners in larger cities -- Dallas’ Jerry Jones springs to mind -- pocket vastly more dollars than an owner here in sponsorships, local advertising, luxury suites, club seating, season tickets, seat licenses (entry fees for season tickets) and other profit-churners.

"But maximizing dollars becomes imperative for the next Bills owner if he or she takes on debt to buy the team, worth an estimated $870 million. Facing annual loan payments of tens of millions of dollars -- something Wilson never had -- is a huge incentive to be in a market where you can rake it in. That isn't Buffalo."

"I don't buy that for a second," Masiello said. "Corporate Buffalo and Western New York, along with our partners in Rochester and Southern Ontario and Western Pennsylvania, I think everybody will dig deep, whether you're a fan or a business to keep the Bills in Buffalo."

Unless the NFL wants to expand beyond 32 teams and explore new markets without sacrificing existing ones, something has to give.

NFL relocation rules state that, "in considering a proposed relocation, the Member Clubs are making a business judgment concerning how best to advance their collective interests." Owners may eventually need to decide between committing to a Buffalo market that, after 54 years, may have maxed out its fan support or by developing potentially lucrative markets in Los Angeles, Toronto or London.

It's a question that also applies to teams like the Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams, who both have more urgent stadium concerns than Buffalo, or a club like the Jacksonville Jaguars that is plagued by relatively dismal fan support. Relocating any of those teams would take pressure off Buffalo.

Building a new stadium in Western New York would do more than take pressure off Buffalo -- it would ensure the team's presence in the region for the next several decades.

That would address another one of the NFL's 12 factors, which is "the adequacy of the stadium in which the club played its home games in the previous season; the willingness of the stadium authority or the community to remedy any deficiencies in or to replace such facility, including whether there are legislative or referenda proposals pending to address these issues."

The Bills, Erie County and New York State took the first step toward remedying deficiencies in their 40-year-old facility by completing their "new stadium working group" last week. It's an important move, and the rest of the NFL will be monitoring the committee's progress closely.

"There's going to be a full-court press to keep this team in this city, in Western New York. I know our governor and county executive and mayor," Masiello said. "There will probably be a new stadium six to seven years from now."

Building a new venue will be a years-long process that will likely require the cooperation of a new ownership group. It's hard to envision the parties currently controlling the team pushing the process through to lock any potential buyers into a new local venue. Doing so could drive down the value of the team.

"A new stadium might generate more revenue for an owner," Esmonde wrote. "But sports economists say it won’t squeeze nearly the numbers from our wealth-challenged region as a big-city crib."

Over the last decades of Wilson's life, the Bills were able to avoid the allure of the big city, trying to make do with lesser resources.

"When you're from Buffalo, you're basically an underdog," Masiello said. "We're not glamorous, fancy, but [Wilson] could have moved the team to L.A. or Seattle or some of these other glamorous cities and he kept it in Buffalo and he kept his word."

With Wilson now gone, how much longer can that underdog story last?

That's the question that's now on most fans' minds.