One of the drawbacks of having consistently bad sports teams is the lack of any true rivalries or villains. Really, does any other team care enough to qualify as a rival for the Bills or Sabres nowadays? And how long has it been since an opposing athlete rose to the status of Public Enemy No. 1?
The last time a player had the Buffalo populace up in arms was when Tom Brady insulted our hotels in a press conference three Super Bowls ago. Brady might have done us a favor. Come on, is it a coincidence that hotel construction has been surging ever since? I can see a new Marriott right across the street from the paper.
The Bruins’ Milan Lucic was the object of public disdain after running over Ryan Miller a few years back. Hey, at least he didn’t threaten to kill anybody! Maybe fans should thank him. Lucic exposed the Sabres as a soft team, and management finally woke up and set about trying to build a team that was physically accountable.
Well, someone has finally stepped into the villainous void – a character so smug, slimy and sinister that Bills fans around the globe can bond together in their common loathing: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Jones has never been popular with Western New York fans. His Dallas team did whip the Bills in consecutive Super Bowls two decades ago. I don’t recall Jones being terribly gracious in victory back then. The Cowboys have exactly one playoff win since 1996 and the guy still walks around like king of the world.
But Jones hit Bills fans where it hurt this week at the league meetings in Atlanta, asserting that Toronto would be a good candidate for an NFL team and that the league should always look to be “growing the pie” and the fan base.
Jones also gushed about rock star Jon Bon Jovi, who has expressed interest in buying the Bills and moving them to Toronto. Bon Jovi has a relationship with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment executives Larry Tanenbaum and Tim Leiweke.
“I don’t know of anyone that I have more respect for as a father or as a husband or, certainly, as a potential business partner,” Jones said. “He’s an outstanding candidate to be an owner in the NFL.”
That was a bit odd, hearing Jones testify for Bon Jovi as a husband and father. I wasn’t aware they were that close. But it’s no more bizarre than a Bills fan group known as “12th Man Thunder” calling for local businesses to boycott Bon Jovi’s music.
It’s like calling for a boycott of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, or Alanis Morissette.
Anyway, Bills fans are in no mood to hear about the virtues of Toronto as an NFL town. The last thing they need to hear, with their beloved team up for sale, is an influential NFL owner talking about the need to “create every opportunity” to widen the fan base and maximize profits.
Buffalo fans are feeling vulnerable these days. Jones represents their biggest fears, a leering, avaricious owner whose only concern is the bottom line. They’d like to believe he’s some crackpot. Of course, they’re some of the same people who want to convince themselves that Donald Trump is a benevolent figure.
Jones needs to be taken seriously. He might be a blowhard, but he’s a force in the NFL. He built a $1.3 billion stadium. He hosted a Super Bowl. He doesn’t speak for all the NFL owners, but his opinion carries weight.
At least Jones is open about his desire to squeeze every dime out of the enterprise. A lot of the NFL owners spout platitudes about the Bills, and how charming and vital the franchise is to the league. I suspect many of them agree privately with Jones. They want their properties to be as financially robust as possible.
That doesn’t mean they’ll sell Buffalo down the river. It would take only nine owners to block a potential move of the Bills’ franchise. But it would be naive to see Jones’ comments as hollow threats. When one of the most powerful men in sports points to Toronto and tells you he could see a team thriving there, you ought to worry.
I don’t think Jones is making idle threats. What this could be is a warning call from the owners, an overt attempt to rattle the Bills and their fans and make them aware that their franchise is in peril if they don’t build a new stadium.
The NFL is a stadium-building league, not a stadium-refurbishing league. That’s clear to anyone who has been paying attention the last 20 years or so. It was clear when I looked out the window of my hotel in Indianapolis at the 2012 Super Bowl.
It was clear when the NFL awarded the 2018 Super Bowl to Minneapolis, which is now breaking ground on a $1 billion stadium at the site of the old Metrodome. It’s now coming clear to people in Buffalo. Refurbishing The Ralph is slapping paint on a crumbling pile of rocks.
Commissioner Roger Goodell says we need a new stadium. The good news is, this appears to be a politically favorable time for the Bills. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing for a new stadium. The Bills are the only NFL team located in New York State. Cuomo can gain a lot of political capital by keeping the Bills here.
Cuomo has aspirations for high national office. New York Sen. Charles Schumer is also adamant about keeping the team in Buffalo. At the league meetings, there was speculation that the NFL would be wary of allowing the Bills to move and creating enemies – and attracting possible court actions – at the top levels of federal government.
So the political imperatives could push Cuomo and Schumer to deliver sizable state and federal funding for a stadium, easing the blow on local taxpayers. That’s a prospect that should brighten the outlook of frantic Bills fans who are busy cursing Jerry Jones and boycotting old rock stars.
Jones seems to be telling Buffalo to get a move on. The NFL owners have an exclusive club. They don’t operate out of sentiment. To quote Bon Jovi, if you think you can get by without a new stadium, you’re livin’ on a prayer.