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Bills CEO determined to keep team viable

Russ Brandon likes to say everyone has an opinion about the Buffalo Bills organization. Make that many opinions.

"I was walking in the mall around Christmastime, and an elderly woman stopped me as I was going into a store," the team's chief executive officer recalls. "She grabbed my arm and said, 'Listen. I know football. I went to Ole Miss. I grew up in the SEC.' And then she proceeded to make point after point after point about draft prospects and what we were doing on the field. 'You tell your personnel people this and this,' she said. And I loved it."

Welcome to the life of the man who is the top caretaker for the single most unifying institution in Western New York -- the Bills.

As the Bills' top businessman, Brandon has shepherded the team through a hugely successful past dozen years off the field.

The Bills filled a greater percentage of seats at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the decade of the 2000s than they did in the decade of the 1990s, when the team went to four Super Bowls and made the playoffs eight of 10 years. Of course, that's particularly amazing since the Bills have been wandering through the desert of NFL futility since 2000, failing to make the playoffs 12 straight years.

Brandon, 44, now takes on his next great challenge. He is the point man for team owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. in negotiating a new lease with New York State and Erie County. He aims to oversee major renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium that the team thinks will keep the franchise viable and in Buffalo for at least the next decade, the expected term of the new lease.

"My responsibility and our organization's responsibility is to make this franchise as viable as possible," Brandon said.

That's Brandon's pat answer when asked about the prospect of the franchise remaining in Western New York beyond the life of its 93-year-old owner. Brandon believes a strong, successful Bills franchise will be too attractive to move.

But when pressed on his perspective on the likelihood of a group tied to Western New York eventually buying the team, Brandon refuses to cooperate.

"We focus on the here and now, and that's not for me to discuss," he said.

Nevertheless, Brandon makes no bones about his motivation to do right by the franchise -- and its fans.

"It's a tremendous responsibility, and it certainly has caused many sleepless nights from the standpoint of how much it means to this community, how much it means to this region," Brandon said of his drive to make the Bills succeed. "But the one thing this region offers that is limitless is passion. It's the Niagara Falls of passion. It just keeps rolling. That's the one thing we don't have to manufacture, the unbridled passion the people have for this franchise and the connectivity that the franchise has to its legion of fans. Jokingly, I often say the greatest thing about the job is the passion the people have for the Bills, and the worst thing about the job is the passion the people have for the Bills."

Since joining the Bills in November 1997, Brandon has developed into a mover and shaker in league management. He was appointed about a year ago to the NFL's 10-member Business Ventures Committee. It oversees all of the league's sponsorship deals (like the Nike contract to make the league's uniforms), consumer products, events, marketing and new business initiatives.

The committee is headed by San Diego owner Dean Spanos and includes Washington owner Daniel Snyder and Miami owner Stephen Ross. Of the league's 27 standing committees, it's arguably among the top four, along with the Management Council Executive Committee (which oversees labor with the players), the Broadcasting Committee (which negotiates TV deals) and the Competition Committee (which oversees rules of the game).

"I think Russ is a brilliant marketer," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "He understands the passion of the fans, and he understands the community. He has a great team around him [in the Bills' front office], which is the sign of a quality person. He's one of the more respected club executives we have, and his serving on our business ventures committee is an indication of that."

The foundation of the Bills' business model under Brandon has been regionalization.

"Regionalization is the foundation of what we are and what we need to be," Brandon said. "We've always had demographic challenges, so they're not an excuse. We look at those as another small hurdle we need to overcome, hence the Toronto initiative."

>Regionalization model

In 1999, when the Bills opened training camp at St. John Fisher College, the team only had two or three suite holders from Monroe County, Brandon said. Now close to 30 have Rochester ties, he said.

Since the Bills in Toronto series began four years ago, the team has seen a 44 percent rise in season ticket holders from Southern Ontario.

Roughly 30 percent of the fans in Orchard Park on any game day are from either Rochester or Southern Ontario. It has been an even split between those two markets in recent years.

"But Southern Ontario is inching past Rochester," Brandon said. "It has proven to be a very positive element of our series in Toronto. That was always the goal. The regionalization provides us the opportunity to reach more fans and sell this building out and drive our business platforms."

The Bills expect to sign an extension of their Toronto series, which is entering its last season.

"The Toronto series is a long-term play," Brandon said. "We've got years ahead. It takes time to build a brand. We haven't had great success on the field. That's obviously a factor that plays into it. But we know this: We know there is a large, avid fan base for the NFL in the Toronto marketplace. Our job is to make as many of those people as we can Bills fans."

How many suite holders are from Southern Ontario?

"Minimal," Brandon said. "That's the next shoe that needs to drop, and that's our responsibility to make that happen."

When the last renovation of the stadium was complete, there were 164 suites.

"Over the last six or seven years, we're down to 141 because we've made party suites, bigger suites; we've doubled suites," Brandon said.

But the Bills have to work hard to fill them. They have about 200 clients combining to fill those suites.

"We're a marriage broker when it comes to filling suites," Brandon said. "Many times a company has half a suite, and another company has another half. They're partners and they want to be treated as a suite owner. So 141 suites can go to 200 in terms of how many [clients] you have to service. They're spending their hard-earned dollars in supporting the franchise."

The Bills filled all but 12 suites last year, and those dozen were sold on an individual game basis. Brandon expects few if any empty suites this season.

The job of selling and sponsorships falls to one of Brandon's right-hand men, Bruce Popko, senior vice president of business development. He was recruited to the Bills in 2009 with a strong resume, having served senior positions with the Cleveland Browns and International Management Group, a global sports and media business.

"Mr. Wilson has provided me every opportunity to build the infrastructure here and add talent to the front office on the administrative-business side," Brandon said. "He provided every resource you can ask for."

Are the small-market Bills in the bottom quarter of local revenue production?

The team is higher, Brandon responded. He would not be specific.

Forbes Magazine ranked the Bills tied for 25th in its annual estimate, with revenue of $236 million.

In terms of season ticket sales, the Bills expect to see a significant jump from last year's total of 37,355. They were at 55,000 in 2009. A 50,000 total would put the Bills at "mid-tier" in the league, Brandon said.

"We feel this market is a solid, 50,000-seat market when the arrows are pointed in the proper direction." he said. "We are a believer that sold-out buildings drive all your other business platforms. When you're working to sell out every game, it takes a lot of sweat equity from everyone in the organization to get the building to a sellout. When we're in that (sold out) position, we can focus on other things to help drive our activations with our sponsors and all the other programs that we do."

>Stadium a huge asset

Brandon sees Ralph Wilson Stadium -- provided it gets upgrades in a new lease agreement -- as a huge asset for the franchise.

"It's the Fenway of the NFL, as I like to say," Brandon smiles, turning on his marketer's charm.

"This stadium has the best sight lines in the NFL, bar none," he said. "The sight lines are the foundation of the experience, along with the great experience we have outside the building. The sight lines of this building and the tailgating here are really the foundation of what we are as a campus. How can we enhance those opportunities for our fans, for our partners, and how can we drive value for them?"

Filling the stadium figures to get a little easier this year given the excitement over the Bills' $100 million signing of free-agent defensive tackle Mario Williams. Brandon looks forward to selling a winning product.

"If we consistently deliver on the field and can offer new opportunities through the renovation on the stadium, we know we can capitalize and we know we can be a healthy franchise for a long time," he said.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com