Share this article

print logo

$200 million ought to buy peace of mind

It looks like the Bills want $200 million in stadium upgrades. What they didn't say goes without saying: Either taxpayers pony up, or the Buffalo Bills -- like their namesake -- saddle up.

Complicating the issue is an expiring 15-year lease and the mortality of the team's 93-year-old owner. Ralph Wilson reportedly has no contingency plan to keep the team here after he is gone. The Bills -- valued at $792 million -- presumably would go to the highest bidder, who probably won't be from around here. A likely landing spot is Los Angeles, an NFL-covetous mega-market with wannabe owner Phillip Anschutz eager to launch a stadium project.

We know what the Bills want. Here is, to my mind, what we need:

A Lock-down Lease: A $200 million rehab ought to tie the team here for at least 20 years. The Bills reportedly have hinted at a "clawback" deal that refunds -- all or in part -- stadium fix-up costs if they bolt. That's not bad. But it could leave us with a gleaming white elephant for monster truck shows.

"You need an extended lease in return for improvements," said Robert Baade, a sports economics professor at Lake Forest College in suburban Chicago. "Teams have learned how to make these arrangements less than iron-clad -- like if specific revenues fall below a certain point, the deal is off. You have to watch for the loopholes."

Of course, Wilson could craft a lease that locks the team here, with no exit doors. But the Bills are worth more somewhere else. Locking them here shaves a bit off of a still-astronomical sales price. That would be a noble gesture, given Wilson's astounding return on his original $25,000 investment and the community's half-century of support for mostly losing teams. But that, sadly, is apparently not what will happen.

Get the Bills to Pony Up: The stratospheric value of teams, and tougher economic times, have made massive stadium subsidies less digestible for governments. More teams are kicking in -- with cash or shared revenue -- for new or improved playpens. The Kansas City Chiefs reportedly laid out $125 million for Arrowhead's recent $400 million overhaul. St. Louis wants the Rams to cover half of a proposed $124 million fix-up. In Minneapolis, the Vikings are reportedly in for $427 million of a planned $1 billion stadium. The Bills should ante up.

Let Albany Carry the Weight: Dennis Gorski's coup 14 years ago was getting the state to pay the $63 million fix-up bill. The county then forked over all game-day revenue except breathing rights. That looks to me where the bar is set for Mark Poloncarz.

Hope Another Team Lands In Los Angeles: The NFL landscape is less nomadic than it was 14 years ago. Abandoning longtime NFL cities was bad PR for the league, which now slaps a hefty "relocation fee" on stake-pullers. Beyond that, a tougher economy shaved the number of cities offering everything save first-born children to entice an NFL team. Which -- to our benefit -- leaves fewer places for the Bills to land.

The anxiety-provoker is Los Angeles, which wants to pirate an existing team, has a deep-pocketed prospective owner and a stadium proposal ready to launch. The L.A. threat has been used by a handful of teams to leverage new or remade stadiums. Its presence strengthens the Bills' negotiation muscle and gives the next owner a juicy relocation option.

"The L.A. card was played in Minneapolis [to land a new stadium]," Baade said, "and I'm sure it has been whispered with Buffalo. I don't see Toronto as a viable [relocation] alternative, but L.A. is a different story."

I know that fans are jacked up about next season. But the game with the highest stakes for Buffalo will not be played on the field. Let's not roll over.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com