Just because the Buffalo Bills are up for sale doesn’t mean they’ll be packing up for a more lucrative market.
That’s the conclusion local political and business leaders share with experts in the business of professional football, who say that several factors stand in the way of moving the team to Los Angeles or another larger market.
What’s more, several business leaders with local connections and deep enough pockets have expressed interest in buying the Bills. Highly placed sources say that the Jacobs family, owner of Delaware North Companies, leads the list of potential local suitors.
“I am even more optimistic this week than I was last week that we can keep the Bills in Buffalo,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who serves on the Bills’ new stadium working group. Schumer would not discuss any potential buyers for the Bills. But, he assured, “We have a lot of tools in our tool kit.”
Other sources said the most important tool in that kit would be the Bills’ lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which includes heavy penalties for moving the team.
And even though many expect out-of-town bidders to also express interest in buying the team, sources with knowledge of the situation said that doesn’t mean the new owner would be able to move the team.
“The lease’s structure and the non-relocation agreement structure is a major inhibitor for someone to come in and buy the team with the speculative expectation of relocating the team to a different market,” said Marc Ganis of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago sports consulting firm with strong connections in the NFL.
Lease good until 2019
The future of the Bills in Buffalo will remain a huge worry for the region until the day a local owner takes over. NFL teams hardly ever go on the open market.
Schumer said he has spoken with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who he said wants to keep the Bills in Buffalo.
The team will have to be sold to the highest bidder who can receive approval from at least 24 of the 31 other teams. Toronto suitors have expressed interest in the NFL, and other non-local bidders are sure to pursue the team, perhaps from Los Angeles.
But several NFL experts with Los Angeles ties say Western New York should not view L.A. as a prime threat to take the team.
Highly placed Bills sources told The News last week that the National Football League owners could complete a sale of the team at meetings next spring, if not sooner.
That means that whoever buys the team is guaranteed to be running it in Western New York for another five years after the purchase. The Bills’ lease with New York State and Erie County essentially is airtight through the 2019 season. There’s a one year window – in 2020 – when the team can terminate the lease for a relatively small sum of $28.3 million.
“I was privy to the lease when it was presented to the league,” said Amy Trask, chief executive officer of the Oakland Raiders from 1997 to 2013. “I’m familiar with the broad strokes. It struck me at that time that it was a bold, clear statement by Ralph Wilson he wanted to provide every single opportunity for the Bills to thrive in Buffalo.”
Ganis served as a consultant for both the Raiders and Rams franchises in their moves out of Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.
“There are several reasons why the lease agreement that Ralph Wilson agreed to two years ago is greatly beneficial to Bills fans and which leads to a more likely scenario of the team staying somewhere in the region on a long-term basis,” Ganis said. “It’s not an assurance, but it certainly adds to the probability that the team will stay somewhere in the region.”
Hard road to L.A.
Ganis is an expert on the Los Angeles market, and he is convinced it’s a pipe-dream to think an owner from there would swoop in and move the team. Why?
That person would have to hang onto the team for five full seasons before moving it, with no guarantee that the league would OK the move to L.A. Furthermore, another NFL club could move to Los Angeles during that five-year interim period. San Diego, Oakland and St. Louis all have leases that are breakable in the coming year.
“The problem with that is you don’t control your own destiny on at least two levels, but actually it’s more than two levels,” Ganis said of an L.A. buyer. “One is whether the NFL will permit the Bills to relocate to another market. A corollary to that is whether the NFL would permit the team to relocate to Los Angeles itself. The next issue is whether another team will have relocated into Los Angeles in the intervening years.”
“There are other teams looking to move more quickly than the Bills could even think about it,” Trask said. “The other thing I would add is a relocation is going to require a very large relocation fee from the league. There’s no guarantee that another team won’t relocate there first. And nine votes against would preclude a relocation.”
Former Green Bay Vice President Andrew Brandt, now an ESPN NFL business analyst, agrees.
“I don’t see L.A. as a practical matter right now,” Brandt said. “I don’t hear Buffalo in the mix. ... I hear more buzz about London than I do about L.A.”
But Brandt doubts whether the NFL would be ready to put a team in London by 2020.
“Maybe by the end of the decade the league could go from four to six or even six to eight games in London. That eight could be a rotation of 16 teams or it could be one team, although that’s probably less likely.”
Owning Bruins is an issue
So who could keep the Bills in Buffalo? Two well-placed local sources said that the Jacobs are in play.
Jeremy M. Jacobs Sr. is worth a reported $3.1 billion as chairman and chief executive officer of Buffalo-based Delaware North, one of the world’s largest concession companies.
Jacobs, of East Aurora, presides over a global hospitality and food service business that is one of the largest privately held companies in North America. He and his wife have six children; three sons and three daughters.
Jacobs’ ownership of the NHL’s Boston Bruins could prove to be a stumbling block, given that NFL rules bar teams from being owned by people who own franchises in other sports leagues unless that other team is located in the same city as the NFL franchise.
Could one or more of Jacobs’ sons buy the Bills? If they divested themselves of any holdings in the Bruins and removed themselves from any position with that team, it’s possible, an NFL source told The News. However, it would depend on an evaluation of the specifics of the deal, that source said.
In 2012 interviews with The News, the Jacobs family and a top aide appeared to send mixed signals.
“As long as the family has the ownership of the Bruins, they can’t own anything related to the Bills,” said Wendy Watkins, a Delaware North spokeswoman.
To which Jacobs’ son, Jeremy Jr., said: “That said, we will do what we can to ensure that the Bills stay in this town.”
Here’s one certainty: Even though the Bills are worth an estimated $870 million, according to Forbes Magazine, the next owner of the Bills, whoever it is, will have no problem coming up with the money.
NFL rules state that a principal owner must control at least 30 percent of the team. But NFL ownership groups are not cobbled together in three or four big chunks.
“I would expect the next owner of the Bills will be someone – even if he or she has partners – who individually could stroke the check to buy the whole thing,” Ganis said. “Fourteen of the last 15 team sales, that’s the way it has happened. It’s not just what the NFL likes, it’s what they do.”
“The most valuable asset when the NFL looks at prospective owners is the bottom line,” Brandt said. “Obviously, they want to vet them on a personal, social and emotional level. But it does come down to dollars.”
Brandt recalled a story he heard about Jimmy Haslam, who bought the Cleveland Browns for $1 billion in 2012.
“When the NFL went to him and said, ‘We have this guy who can put in $100 million and this other guy who can contribute,’ he basically said in so many words, ‘I’m good,’” Brandt said.
Besides the Jacobs family, who among those with WNY ties would be “good” for most of the price of the Bills?
The prominent candidates include New York entrepreneur Donald Trump, who is friends with Bills Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly; Sabres owner Terry Pegula; and former Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano.
Others could come out of the woodwork. Pegula was an unknown in Western New York before he bought the Sabres.
Pegula is worth a reported $3.3 billion. Sabres spokesman Michael M. Gilbert released the following statement in response to a News request on Pegula’s interest:
“At this time, we remain committed and focused on the Buffalo Sabres organization. However, we are aware of the Buffalo Bills current ownership situation after the passing of Ralph Wilson. We believe that this region is a better place with the Bills here, and we would not want to see the team moved out of Buffalo.”
Of all the locally connected names mentioned, Trump appears to be the most forthright about his intentions. Late Friday, he was described by a top Trump aide as “very serious” about purchasing the team.
“One person who certainly has expressed interest is Donald Trump,” said Michael Cohen, executive vice president of the Trump Organization and special counsel to Trump.
He added the Manhattan real estate developer is “100 percent” committed to keeping the team in Buffalo.
“The Bills have a rich history in Western New York, and Mr. Trump’s interest is to preserve that,” Cohen said.
Trump has maintained a long relationship with Kelly, who is undergoing cancer treatments in New York City. Before Kelly joined the Bills in 1986, he briefly was a member of the New Jersey team Trump owned in the United States Football League.
Cohen, who said he has been assigned to handle preparations for a potential purchase by the Trump Organization, said he does not believe the NFL harbors concerns about Trump’s association with gambling businesses. While NFL rules prohibit team owners to also maintain gambling interests, he said Trump has only a minority stake in such businesses. (Delaware North also has a casino holding in West Virginia.)
“Donald Trump has a very small interest in Trump Entertainment and Resorts, which is a publicly traded company,” Cohen said. “While his name is still on the outside of buildings, he is not a board member nor does he maintain any control over the casino operation.
Cohen explained that Trump has determined that any potential owner must first prove his financial ability to purchase the team, adding his own job is to know the exact amount of Trump’s cash and equity holdings at any given time.
“There is no issue there at all,” he said. “Mr. Trump’s wealth is far greater than what has been reported.
Cohen also said Trump is not concerned about losing a bidding war should the team’s current ownership deal with competing offers.
“Mr. Trump understands business better than anyone and understands the right price and the wrong price for any asset,” he said. “He also understands this is not a bargain basement sale and intends on competing with any interested party. Unfortunately for them,” he added, “the last dozen competitors who were competing on properties and assets have lost to Mr. Trump.”
Golisano, meanwhile, has wealth estimated at $2.1 billion. He sold the Sabres to Pegula in 2011. He also bid for the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team in 2012.
Golisano has stated publicly he wants the Bills to remain in Western New York.
A source with knowledge of Golisano’s discussions said: “He is open to playing a role to help save the team,” but added he does not envision Golisano engaging in a bidding war with anyone seeking to keep the team in Buffalo.
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News staff reporters Dan Herbeck, Stephen T. Watson and Jonathan Epstein contributed to this report.