Thanks to the NFL RedZone channel and fantasy football, NFL Sundays are less provincial than ever. It doesn’t matter if the Jaguars are 1-10—Jeff in Jacksonville is too busy watching the RedZone’s quad, hoping Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard can punch in a touchdown for his fantasy squad.
That’s not going down in Buffalo, though. Bills games still run that town despite the team's 14-year playoff drought. Watching the Bills is Sunday worship; heading to The Ralph is going to church.
Peter Tasca, along with his partners Phil Gangi and Stephen Butler, filmed the documentary Almost a Dynasty: A Fan Story about the Bills’ glory years in the early 1990s. He paraphrases what a prominent Buffalo sports columnist once told him: “You can’t sit around a bar on Sundays and talk about the Buffalo Philharmonic.”
Win or lose, this doesn’t change.
Gangi and Tasca are at Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, a downtown bar that specializes in local craft beers and sits not too far from the redeveloping Buffalo waterfront (a possible site of a new stadium) and right under the interstate that carries Buffalonians 10 miles south to Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park on game days.
They speak of the Bills with a reverence that is sometimes tempered with exasperation. Loyalty—to Buffalo and the Bills—is unwavering.
“This is a marriage and we’re still committed,” says Tasca. “We’re still in love. We don’t believe in divorce.”
But what if the Bills leave them?
With the NFL draft almost here, Bills fans aren’t simply concerned with whether their squad can trade up for Jadeveon Clowney or if EJ Manuel would benefit more from offensive tackle Taylor Lewan or tight end Eric Ebron. For some (maybe many), the prevailing question is, “Are we going to be able to keep the Bills in Western New York?”
This has been a legitimate question for years now. (In 2012, Sen. Charles Schumer sent this memo to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, which outlined several proposed steps to ensure the Bills remained in Western New York.) But the threat of “divorce” increased when Ralph Wilson, the Bills’ one and only owner, passed away in March, ensuring the Bills would be put up for sale.
Days after Wilson’s death, former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly revealed his sinus cancer had re-emerged. It put the region in a very somber mood. When coupled with Andre Reed’s recent induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame—the fifth member of the Bills’ Super Bowl squads to receive such an honor, effectively tying a bow on that era—it put fans in a reflective, if not somewhat morose, state of mind.
Maybe time’s up. We had a great run.
Reed, who’s recently joined the advisory board of the Buffalo Fan Alliance, a leading organization in the region’s mission to keep the Bills in Buffalo, ain’t havin’ that.
“The Bills aren’t going anywhere. We won’t let them,” he says. “Ralph had the team here for 50 years. They belong in Buffalo.”
Wilson’s Bills arrived in Buffalo in 1959 as a charter member of the AFL, but they almost never happened. Here’s a brief history, condensed from Sal Maiorana's book Buffalo Bills: The Complete Illustrated History.
Wilson, a Detroit businessman, really wanted to own the Lions, but when it was clear he and his father would only ever be minority owners, he decided to reach out to Lamar Hunt, who was starting the AFL. Wilson wanted to start a franchise in Miami. Hunt, however, offered a list of five other cities to choose from—Atlanta, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Louisville and Buffalo.
Wilson didn’t like the choices and was close to actually declining the AFL’s invite. But before doing so, he sought the advice of Detroit Times sports editor Ed Hayes and Lions exec Nick Kerbawy. They both suggested he give Buffalo a hard look.
So Wilson traveled to Buffalo and met with Buffalo Evening News sports editor Paul Neville, who told Wilson about the Bills’ staunch support from the fans when they played in the All-America Football Conference. Those Bills were left out of the NFL merger with the AAFC, and the region pined for another shot at hosting pro football.
George Schaaf, a Buffalo contractor who was also Wilson’s commanding officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, confirmed this to Wilson as well. In the Complete Illustrated History, Wilson recalled he was convinced “that [Buffalo] was one of the greatest sports towns in America.”
And after two AFL championships, the AFL-NFL merger, the O.J. Simpson era, the post-O.J. doldrums and the Super Bowl years, we are here now—more than a decade of consistent losing but continued support.
The disappointment of four straight Super Bowl losses followed by a lot of sketchy drafting, bumbling coaching/management and losing seasons can wear on even the most resolute fans.
Yet love for this franchise doesn’t wane significantly.
“It’s difficult to put into words,” says Gangi, “but I would describe how Buffalo feels as more nostalgia than pride.”
Translation: We don’t like where we’re at, but we love who we are.
It’s this love that has Buffalo—the Bills fans, in particular—getting creative. As a nation of taxpayers reaches a consensus in opposition to tax hikes to help billionaires pay for new or renovated stadiums, and with the NFL no longer allowing the Green Bay “public-owned stock model,” fans of smaller-market teams can feel helpless when the prospect of relocation lurks.
This is what lead Brian Cinelli, Matt Sabuda and Steve Brady to create the Buffalo Fan Alliance.
“One of the perceived weaknesses of the Buffalo area is that so many people have left,” says Sabuda. “So the question is whether there is a way to bring in the expat fanbase in a manner that they can tangibly contribute to the future of the team. So, what we came up with was a funding model that would allow Bills fans here and around the country to contribute to a fund that would lend to the team at zero percent interest.”
Billionaires just don’t come in and write a check for a billion dollars to buy a team. It’s a complex transaction, says Sabuda, that often involves debt financing.
“So if [a buyer] is going to use debt and the region can’t quite compete with some markets on the revenue side, why not try to use this untapped resource that exists around the country and try to compete better on the debt side?”
With this idea in mind, BFA hired a site selection firm (site selection measures the needs of a new project against the merits of potential locations) to do some demographic research. The firm’s initial projections were that the Bills fanbase should be able to raise somewhere between $100 million and $170 million. This would come in fan contributions to the fund ranging from $10 to more than $10,000.
Sabuda and Cinelli claim that the interest savings on that alone would be roughly the equivalent of what the Bills would get if they sold out a whole new level of luxury boxes.
Although the city of Buffalo is in the midst of a gradual revitalization where dormant plots of land and formerly abandoned buildings are increasingly marked with scaffolds or new buildings (Sabuda, Cinelli and I are having this discussion at a new bar in the recently renovated Hotel Lafayette), and Governor Andrew Cuomo along with Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown are generally succeeding in their aggressive quest to lure new businesses to Western New York, the region has long since battled the problem of brain drain.
Kids go off to college, and a good portion do not return, or kids come to attend one of the city’s several colleges, graduate and exit. It shrinks the tax base (although Erie County’s population promisingly increased for the first time in four decades in 2013 to about 920,000), but most Bills fans never stop being Bills fans, even after they leave the region.
The national map is littered with Bills Backers clubs.
The late Tim Russert never stopped being a Bills fan even after he left and moved to Washington, D.C., to become one of the most influential political reporters of his time. He indoctrinated his son, Luke, now a reporter for NBC, from birth. Luke has never lived in Buffalo, but he is a vocal and avid Bills fan.
“What you have is this national network, so to speak, of Bills fans,” says Russert. “You can go anywhere— Arizona, Florida, Chicago, New York, Atlanta—and every city you travel to around the country, there’s a Buffalo Bills bar, and it’s completely packed, even after 14 years of not making the playoffs. Our link to our hometown is watching the Bills on Sunday, eating wings and drinking Labatt Blues. We’re emotionally invested. Why can’t you tap into that?”
Well, BFA thinks the emotionally invested may financially invest, so to speak, if it means keeping their Bills in Buffalo.
In addition to this national network, the Bills have a growing local fanbase that, in addition to the Erie and Niagara counties (which the census combines as one metropolitan statistical area), now includes the nearby Rochester metro region and southern Ontario across the Canadian border (both regions are within 60 miles of Buffalo, which is almost half the distance between Milwaukee and Green Bay and only about 15 miles farther than the distance from the center of San Francisco to Santa Clara, the site of the 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium).
When you combine the three regions, suddenly the Bills’ market isn’t so small. The NFL, however, doesn’t technically recognize Ontario as part of the Bills’ market. Still, about one out of three season ticket-holders come from the Rochester and Ontario regions.
This has been a focus for Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon throughout his tenure. In that time, according to Buffalo Business First, the season ticket-holder base grew from about 31,000 to almost 43,000.
And although winter games in Buffalo feature one of the league’s most unforgiving climates, the Bills have produced solid or better than average attendance figures for the bulk of their playoff-drought years.
Wilson’s widow, Mary, is now controlling owner of the Bills. She won’t be for long.
Prospective owners include Donald Trump, a group headed by Jim Kelly, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs and Jon Bon Jovi. No matter the new owner, the Bills, however, will almost certainly remain in Buffalo until 2020, when the new owners have a one-year out to break their lease and relocate for just a $28 million penalty.
To leave before 2020 would involve a difficult legal win in Erie County court, plus a $400 million penalty. In other words, it ain’t happenin’.
That gives Western New York six years—more or less—to convince an owner to stay put. In the meantime, important parties aren’t lollygagging.
Governor Cuomo’s office is hiring a consultant to put together a plan to present to would-be owners. A chief part of this plan is a stadium package.
Whether the new stadium be downtown on the waterfront, in Niagara County closer to the U.S.-Canada border or a Ralph Wilson Stadium renovation, the consensus is, as Russert says, building wherever “we can construct [a stadium] the quickest to keep [the new owners] tethered to the region.”
What about Toronto?
“We all know the importance of keeping the team in Western New York,” says former Bills kicker and BFA adviser Steve Christie. “Growing up outside of Toronto, I can say with certainty that it wouldn’t be the same if the Bills moved to Toronto. The atmosphere just isn’t there. It’s not like at The Ralph. Games in Toronto just aren’t the same. They can’t even really tailgate out there.”
If you’re a football fan born before the ‘80s, then you probably remember wide receiver Phil McConkey of New York Giants lore. McConkey grew up in Buffalo, and although he says he’ll always be a Giant, he admits he roots hardest for the Bills.
“I will give up my Super Bowl ring to watch the Bills win a Super Bowl,” says McConkey, who hasn’t lived in Buffalo since 1975. “That’s how far and deep my love for the Bills runs.”
Think about that. Now think about this: There are plenty of Bills fans who could likely one-up McConkey on his proposed collateral.
Full disclosure: I grew up in Buffalo and, although I have spent the bulk of my adulthood living elsewhere, I remain an active Bills fan. I knelt on my basement floor, holding hands with my pops and two cousins, as Scott Norwood’s kick sailed wide right, shed some tears and then kept coming back for more.
When I returned home to report on this story, I did not find a region of apocalyptic fans wallowing in despair. There was a general optimism not only for the Bills’ competitive prospects for the 2014 season, but also for the Bills’ tenure in Western New York.
I made it a point to ask all the people I spoke to if they could imagine an NFL Sunday in Buffalo without the Bills. It usually elicited a grimace for a few seconds, like trying to conjure that idea made their brains hurt, before they’d finally respond with a terse and defiant, “NO.”
Because, really, what’s Buffalo without the Bills?
Vincent Thomas is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Shadow League. His work has frequently appeared on SLAM, ESPN.com, Fox Sports, NBA.com and various newspapers. Follow him @vincecathomas.