Tales and opinions from a former lowly NFL employee. Blending the view from the bleachers and the front office.
When the Pro Football Writers Association hands out their NFL Executive of the Year Award, the criteria generally highlights on-field performance. It’s understandable, as winning is the name of the game, but what about recognizing an executive for their overall stewardship of the franchise?
Bills fans may groan when I attempt to make the case for Russ Brandon as a consistently overlooked nominee for Executive of the Year, but there’s a real basis for his candidacy.
Generally speaking, league pundits have often acted as little more than fear brokers when it comes to the future of the Bills in Western New York. What manages to slip through the cracks is that Bills CEO Russ Brandon has quietly been transforming the Bills into a model for business sustainability. Brandon continues to position the franchise as an evolving business model that recognizes the strengths of the WNY/Southern Ontario market.
This is nothing against Trent Baalke of the San Francisco 49ers, this year’s winner. But it’ll be interesting to see if there is any fan backlash against the 49ers for what is essentially a relocation to San Jose.
Unlike Baalke, Brandon didn’t grow up in the ranks of the scouting grind. But that isn’t where Brandon's case as Executive of the Year is made. His case is made in the impact he has had on the positioning of the franchise and its future in WNY, despite losing.
If you look back at Brandon’s tenure since the team hired him in 1997, what you’ll see is the track record of a progressive executive.
Pundits talk about what he’s done to regionalize the franchise. I think that sentiment is somewhat misplaced. WNY and much of Southern Ontario has generally always been a singular cultural region. However, for a long time, the Bills’ marketing efforts were largely parochial. While fans in Rochester, Southern Ontario and even Syracuse were still fans, the Bills never really showed them the love in a way that fans crave. Brandon recognized this and tailored the team’s marketing efforts accordingly.
Imagine for a moment if the team still held training camp in Fredonia. Imagine if there was not a Bills ticket office in Pittsford. Imagine if there was no Toronto series, which despite being unpopular in WNY, has increased Toronto-area Bills season ticket purchases by 44%. Imagine if the Bills had no outreach efforts to the Syracuse market. Take away all of these Brandon-led initiatives, and the Bills would have continued down the path of under-utilizing their true designated market area.
The exciting and remarkable aspect of this long overdue realization of what the Bills home market really encompasses, is that it’s just scratching the surface. It takes time for fans that haven’t been previously recognized to fully embrace the effort.
By reaching out to all of WNY/Southern Ontario and the collective eight million residents, the Bills are positioning themselves to be sustainable in the league over the long term. Furthermore, Brandon is positioning the team to fulfill the true potential of a unique region.
There are certainly challenges that lie ahead: building on overcoming the larger Canadian cultural divide in a way that fans embrace the Bills as their own; finding a way to include expat fans into the team's broader regionalization efforts; breaking free of modeling the interior atmosphere of the stadium on the NFL’s template by bringing the unique festival atmosphere of a home Bills game into the stadium.
Brandon has proved more than capable of tackling these challenges in a progressive way. As long as he doesn’t take his foot off the gas, the fan base of the Bills will only continue to grow.
Just imagine the potential if the Bills actually start winning.
Follow Matt on Twitter @fffmatt