Many Buffalo Bills fans now expect the worst.
They almost can see moving vans backing up toward the team's Orchard Park offices, following owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr.'s recent comments that the team will be sold after his passing.
Not so fast, say local business leaders who have worked with the Bills and are familiar with the challenge of keeping the team here for the long term.
These leaders, many involved with the Business Backs the Bills efforts that helped save the franchise in 1998, seem hopeful -- but not giddy -- about a new owner surfacing who would keep the team in Buffalo.
"I would say I'm cautiously optimistic," said Ronald K. Zoeller, who now runs Azeros Healthcare. "It's not going to be easy. It will be challenging. But I think the NFL doesn't want any more relocation than is necessary."
Some of these business leaders believe a new owner -- or owners -- would have to be someone with local ties. Others suggested an outsider still could find Buffalo an attractive enough market to keep the team here.
Any list of prospective new owners with Western New York ties begins -- and usually ends -- with three names: Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy M. Jacobs and Buffalo Bisons owner Robert E. Rich Jr.
Jacobs, chairman of Delaware North Cos., may have to be crossed off that list, following comments he made to The Buffalo News last week.
Golisano, however, has done nothing to cool the speculation that he could be interested when the time comes.
The local business leaders pointed to several factors working in favor of the team staying put:
*A 47-year history in Buffalo, marked by what one businessman called an "incredible following" from the team's fans.
*A debt-free stadium that benefits from continual upgrades funded by Erie County and New York State.
*A strong management team that has made significant inroads in marketing the team and regionalizing the franchise.
*An energized local business community that now works closely with the team to help with perhaps the most crucial issue, selling out the team's premium seats.
*The National Football League's interest in not abandoning its small- and mid-market teams.
>Balancing pride and profit
But working against the Bills is the elephant hovering over many local businesses, what Erkie Kailbourne calls the "very challenging" economics and demographics of the area.
Kailbourne, a prominent banker and chairman of the Business Backs the Bills committee, believes two keys are the continued upgrades in a debt-free stadium and the push to keep the stadium, especially its premium seats, sold out.
"With those two components, there's a good opportunity to keep the team in Western New York," Kailbourne said. "Without them, I don't think it can be accomplished."
These businessmen, who know how business titans think, agree that no local owner will ride in on a white horse to rescue the team -- unless it makes good financial sense.
Golisano, Jacobs and Rich all got where they are by making shrewd bottom-line appraisals.
"These are successful businessmen because they didn't make bad decisions," said Andrew J. Rudnick, Buffalo Niagara Partnership president. "First and foremost, it has to be a sound business decision."
While Jacobs didn't completely rule out the possibility of taking over the Bills, a rule prohibiting NFL owners from owning another team in a different market looms as a huge stumbling block.
"My ownership with the Bruins conflicts with my ability to own the football team," Jacobs said. "I don't understand the logic, but that's just one thing."
Jacobs could consider purchasing the Bills only if he sold the Bruins.
Even if there were a way to get around that problem, Jacobs feared the Bills' price tag would be too high.
"It could go for a lot more money than I'd be willing to spend," Jacobs said. "I bought the Bruins at a bargain price. I don't think there are any bargains out there in the NFL."
Jacobs recently was elected chairman of the NHL board of governors and has no plans to sell the hockey team, which he purchased in 1975 for about $5 million. Forbes magazine has estimated that the Bruins are worth about $240 million, the Bills more than $600 million.
Golisano, unlike Jacobs, has done nothing to throw cold water on the possibility of getting involved with the Bills.
>Sizing up the home field
While he declined to comment for this story, Golisano said last year that he was concerned about the possibility of the Bills leaving town, after Wilson expressed "serious doubt" about the team's long-term viability in Buffalo.
"I'm concerned about the Buffalo Bills. I don't want them to leave this community," Golisano told The Buffalo News after a Sabres game in April 2006. "They're a big asset to this community, just like this team is."
At the time, Golisano said that while he was acquainted with Wilson, they hadn't talked about the selling of the team.
"Well, first of all, nobody's talked to me about it," Golisano said then. "But if somebody contacts me, I'll certainly talk to them . . . I'm very interested in the topic. How I would get involved is undetermined at this point."
Rich could not be reached for comment.
Buffalo's best chance to keep the Bills clearly lies with these deep-pocketed businessmen who have strong local ties.
"I think you need one of the big hitters in Buffalo or Rochester, or somebody who used to live here, to step forward," Zoeller said. "You have to have somebody who really cares about this area."
Two weeks ago, in a lengthy interview published in The Buffalo News, Wilson said that he plans to hold onto the Bills during his lifetime; that he has no plans to leave the team to his wife or daughters; that the team will be put up for sale after his passing; and that no Western New Yorker will get a hometown discount.
To a point, the local leaders take Wilson at his word. They believe the team will be put up for sale, with no prior assurance that the team has to stay here.
How would the Bills look to a prospective owner from outside Western New York?
"As Bob Rich said, people vote with their feet," said Jonathan A. Dandes, president of Rich Baseball Operations. "The fact that the Bills still sell out [after seven years out of the playoffs] tells you that they still have this incredible following. That's a huge asset."
Mark E. Hamister, president of the Hamister Group, and others cited the Bills' strong management team, the regionalizing of the franchise and Wilson's battle for a revenue-sharing formula to help smaller-market teams.
"I'm extremely optimistic that Ralph Wilson has set a legacy in place that will allow this team to stay here long after he passes on," Hamister said.
Kailbourne emphasized the need to continue selling out Ralph Wilson Stadium, especially its suites and club seats.
"Premium seating is the key to the franchise value for a prospective owner," Kailbourne said, citing the unshared revenue that flows to the team.
The Western New York economic realities prevent the Bills from charging top dollar for their suites, club seats and regular seats.
So, as Kailbourne said, the team's economic engine runs on volume, not price.
These business leaders seemed less concerned about the potential markets for a relocated Bills team than about the ability to keep the team thriving here. They mentioned the usual suspects that might try to woo the Bills, including Los Angeles, Toronto, Las Vegas and San Antonio.
One leader who wouldn't be quoted by name believes Los Angeles represents less of a threat, as a bonanza that could fetch close to $1 billion as an expansion franchise, with that sum divided by the 32 existing teams. That works out to more than $30 million per team.
"They're not going to give that up," he said of the 32 owners.
>'God bless Ralph Wilson'
The business leaders, perhaps predictably, seemed less critical of Wilson compared to some fans who have questioned his loyalty.
"I don't think any of us have any right to suggest to Mr. Wilson that he has any obligation to anyone but himself," Hamister said. "He has proven his loyalty to this community. All I can say is God bless Ralph Wilson."
"The best thing that could happen with the Bills is Ralph going on forever because he's done a great job," Jacobs added. "He's their only owner and a great owner. The realities are that none of us are here forever."
Paul A. Tokasz, the former Assembly Majority Leader who headed an Assembly committee on sports development and tourism, believes Wilson and the community have been extremely loyal to each other.
"Maybe he could have made more money somewhere else," Tokasz said. "But he was committed to Buffalo, and in return, Buffalo was committed to him.
"This is a team that has been here since 1960," he added. "That has to count for something."
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