Everyone thinks they have the formula to fix a broken NFL team. Everyone thinks it is easy to identify the problem plaguing a losing franchise. Talent, coaching, management, front office, ownership are usually the most noted points. A smaller contingent may believe in conspiracy theories such as the league abusing its power or referees fixing games.
Regardless, during the Bills’ Super Bowl run, these issues were rarely raised as concerns in Buffalo. Of course every Buffalonian knows the story. Since the dissolution of those Super Bowl teams, the team has gone from mediocre, to bad, to patronizing, to mediocre, to really bad, to irrelevancy, to relevant for being awful.
The team has used every clichéd avenue to prove to fans their commitment - coaching changes, player changes, media blitzes, front office changes, and until recently, most fans were willing to be patient. Asking for patience has finally worn thin and Buffalo has quickly become angry. The city is so angry that Carl Paladino actually won the Republican Primary.
Buffalo is in a unique situation in the NFL. When the Bills joined the AFL, the city had not yet been decimated by the movement from industrialization and manufacturing to technology. The population was significantly higher and appropriate for a team in the AFL. Even with the AFL-NFL merger, Buffalo was still an NFL-appropriate city.
Buffalonians were steelmakers and assembly line workers, with hands as raw as Buffalo’s unforgiving winters, and hearts as large as the smoke clouds ballooning from the abundant smokestacks. Buffalo and its brethren cities helped make perfect and marketable story lines against teams in the white collar business and glamour cities, and teams in the south and the heartland, where hard work wasn’t steel and assembly lines, it was farming, ranching and oil drilling.
This triumvirate of perspectives was one key to the growth of the league, and is still used. It cultivated and nurtured many of the rivalries in the league today. The other key was the potential for widespread appeal. Football can be complex, simple, beautiful, graceful, reckless, grotesque, complex, dramatic, simple, passionate and exhilarating. It can relate to anyone, and it was a perfect, marketable storm for a forward-thinking league.
When the country went through massive cultural, civil and political changes, the NFL evolved with the changing nation. Because of this foresight, the league became the massive, unstoppable billion-dollar phenomenon it is today, and far surpassed all other sports in popularity and revenue.
As the country changed, cities, especially those which relied on manufacturing and hand labor as its economic foundation, faced serious crises. Some cities endured and moved forward, others did not and fell behind the advancing nation.
Buffalo fell behind. Its major industries dried up without contingencies, and a mass exodus from the area occurred. While this did not immediately impact the Bills, over the past ten years, it has become clear that supporting an NFL team in Buffalo is difficult.
Many in Buffalo blame Ralph Wilson for the team’s recent lack of success. It needs to be noted that Wilson has owned the Bills since the team’s inception, and has been not just involved in the bad, but also the good. Wilson is respected enough in the football community to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and while he is now old and senile, he deserves some kind of reverence.
The NFL puts Buffalo on a national stage like nothing else in the area currently does. The city takes pride in that notion. Just like Western New Yorkers are good to each other, we care about being thought of as great fans, and we care that the rest of the nation thinks highly of the area.
This need for national acceptance and recognition has caused both good and bad. It has kept Buffalo in that esteemed group of 32 cities which are home to an NFL team. When Buffalo talks proud, the Bills are mentioned in nearly every conversation.
Unfortunately, a continually declining population, the addition of the Sabres along the way (stretching the entertainment budget even more), the lack of major local business, inept local, state and federal politics, an awful economy, and the fiscal explosion in the cost of supporting an NFL team, and asking Western New York to continually find money is impossible.
I’m 32, and I’ve been watching the team for as long as I can remember. The Bills great run happened during in my most formative years. I threw up before the Norwood kick, and screamed at the TV for years. When I was the sole support for my family of three making $6.25/hour, we found money for season tickets. This is what Buffalonians across the area do. They find the money.
I stopped finding the money two years ago. I’ve begun emotionally distancing myself from the team and simply watch the game as a fan of football. I have lost the passion I had specifically for the Bills, but have gained a higher appreciation of the sport.
There is an old guard and a new guard in league ownership. The old guard is old and passing away one by one. There is a difference of opinion within the league over revenue sharing. New stadiums have become integrated into the fabric of America’s largest cities, and are larger than life.
There is a Collective Bargaining Agreement battle looming, and there are issues critical to small markets which may not happen. The Bills lease is up soon. Buffalonians have a sense of entitlement. A feeling of ownership and let down with the team they have supported year after year.
In the end, the NFL is a business. Ralph Wilson is not listened to by his fellow owners not just because he is a crazy old man, but because his fellow owners don’t care about Buffalo. The amount of revenue Buffalo brings to the league has to be near the bottom, and that financial productivity can be gained from most cities.
If nobody cares about Wilson, the man who advocates for the Bills situation, what is he going to do to repay the league?
Do Pittsburgh Pirates fans enjoy their situation?
Buffalo has the want, need, heart and, if emotionally necessary, ability to support the Bills. Still, it is not without damage. The Buffalo area has caved to the NFL time and time again, and to keep the team, many more concessions and a lot more money will need to be spent.
Despite the insecurities of many in the area, Buffalo has much more to offer to the world than an NFL team, and it can survive without one.
One has to question if UB2020 would be so derailed if the Bills didn’t exist and people could place some discretionary funds towards UB Arts and Athletics. Imagine if everyone who currently owns a box at Ralph Wilson Stadium put that money towards the Buffalo Medical Corridor, the Theater District, the Philharmonic, local art galleries, local charities, the Buffalo Waterfront project, or to the Buffalo City School system?
A family can gain full year memberships to the Albright-Knox and Burchfield-Penney art galleries for less than the average cost of two tickets to a Bills game.
We are two weeks into the 2010 season, and everyone has a theory about why they are bad. It's Wilson, Gailey, Buddy Nix, Donahoe, Jim Kelly, Russ Brandon, Trent Edwards, Cornell Green, Kavika Mitchell, drafting another running back, Doug Flutie, not being able to answer reporters because they haven't seen the tape yet, not trading players when they have value (hello Darcy Regier), making bad free agent signings, not cutting players who need to go, Paul Posluszny, Chuck Schumer, not using players properly, not communicating to the fans well enough, fans not understanding the game, not giving back, Dennis Gorski, Terrell Owens, Jeremy Jacobs, people not caring...
The problem is that everyone is right. The Bills are as bad as they have ever been, especially evaluating the team from ownership to front office to scouting to coaching to player talent to public relations to fans. Everything is terrible and it will not get better.
I have a 12 year old son who has never seen a relevant Bills team. He only loves the Bills because I make him and he wants to be like his awesome dad. His friends don't even care about he Bills, they like other teams. People talk about the Bills endlessly, but the discussion always ends with the same question. When is enough, enough?
It is time to let them go.