ALBANY – He was one of the legal architects who helped craft the deal to keep the Buffalo Bills in Western New York. Now, with the death of Ralph Wilson Jr. and the team at some point heading to new ownership, Manhattan lawyer Irwin Raij finds himself being called on again to help find an even longer term solution to keeping the team in the area. The Cuomo administration recently hired him and his firm, Foley & Lardner, to represent the state in high-stake talks about the Bills.
One state official called Raij the state’s “ringer” in the talks because of his expertise in cutting complex sports deals, from team ownership to stadium financing and construction. Foley & Lardner has been retained again – for up to $350,000, plus expenses – for the next three years to represent the state in upcoming talks between the Bills and/or its new owners and the county over what steps can be taken to retain the team, including possibly a new stadium, for longer than the deal cut last spring. In addition, the Cuomo administration also intends to hire a consultant that will have 90 days to put together a package that could be presented to future Bills owners for options for several new stadium locations in the region. Raij, a 43-year-old graduate of Washington University’s School of Law, said his work is at the infancy stage.
“I think it’s unknown because we don’t know who the owner is going to be, so you always want to know what the other party will want,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
“But from the state perspective, our interests have not changed. We want to keep the Bills in New York, so we know what our goal is, and I think everybody knows what our goal is, and we’re not bashful about it. How we get there – it’s so early in the process.”
Raij considered the 2013 stadium lease deal – with 10-year term and big relocation penalties if the team moved – a sort of Phase 1 for keeping the Bills. Now, with new owners coming on board, more work needs to be done.
“Now we have to work on Phase 2, which is how to take (the Bills deal) from 10 years to, whatever, 25 or 30 years,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t know what that solution is yet.”
The hiring of the law firm and the yet-to-be decided consultant suggests that the future of the Bills is getting onto the front burner of the governor, who is up for re-election this year.
“We want to send a message to potential ownership groups that we’re very serious about looking at a stadium as part of the package to keep the Bills in Western New York,” said Howard Glaser, the governor’s state operations director who was a key player in the 2012 and 2013 talks that led to the stadium lease deal.
The consultant is expected to delve into financial matters, including possible stadium sites, financing and economic benefits of keeping the team in Western New York.
Raij’s new assignment will be to represent the state’s interests, once again, in keeping the Bills from moving.
Raij’s résumé is a long one. Before joining Foley & Lardner, he was a senior attorney at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at the same time Cuomo was the agency’s secretary during the Clinton administration. Raij is co-chairman of his firm’s Sports Industry Team.
Besides working the Bills’ stadium lease deal in 2013, he has represented Guggenheim Baseball Management in its purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers and has worked with Major League Baseball on the prospects for a new Oakland A’s stadium. His first sports-related legal deal was the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington D.C., where they now wear the uniforms of the Nationals; he also provided legal work on the construction of the team’s new stadium in Washington.
His NFL work has also included serving as legal counsel to the Miami Dolphins regarding stadium renovations. He also worked with Major League Baseball for a new stadium for the Miami Marlins and represented the investors who purchased the Texas Rangers. He also was part of a team assisting the City of Sacramento to evaluate possibilities for a new entertainment and stadium complex, and was lead counsel in securing stadium lease deals for Major League Soccer teams. His work includes advising teams on broadcast rights, as well as merchandising and ticket deals.
How is this new task of working to keep the Bills in Buffalo different from his past sports deals?
“It’s still too early to know how this will be different. The one difference is, unfortunately, Mr. Wilson passed away and now there’s going to be an estate sales process, and so that might be one distinguishing process. Otherwise, it’s too soon to say.” Raij, the son of parents who came from Cuba, grew up in Miami Beach. He has teams he roots for in sports, but, given his legal work, he decided against showing his cards. “I’m a huge fan of sports. When I’m on the business side, I don’t talk about my favorite teams … I grew up in Miami so you can try to guess who my favorite team was growing up,” he said.
Raij has Democratic Party ties. He was assistant counsel to the 2000 presidential campaign of former Vice President Al Gore; his work included campaign finance legal advice. He also worked as a lawyer in Gore’s White House office. His law firm bio says he “assisted in the defense of the vice president and the administration in congressional and Department of Justice investigations.”
Coming from a diverse legal background, including government, Raij said the practice of sports law varies sharply from case to case.
“I find all sports transactions, whether acquisitions or the building of a stadium, to be complex. The players at the table are very sophisticated. There are competing interests. There are similar interests. The challenge is to find those similar interests to get something done,” he said in an interview while he sat awaiting a plane to take off.
He called deals such as the Bills lease one he helped the Cuomo administration craft in 2012 and 2013 “like solving a puzzle … It’s step by step.”
The $350,000 contract with Foley & Lardner law firm, done as a single source contract without any competition, was approved just a few weeks after Wilson’s death. The contract calls for the payment of a “partner rate” of $495 per hour, as well as any expenses the firm incurs on behalf of its work on the project.
The Empire State Development Corp., the governor’s economic development agency, approved the contract in mid-April and reported it this week in the official New York State Contract Reporter, which advertises contract offerings and awards. The awarding of the contract was done quickly after Wilson’s death. Board members of the development corporation were notified, in writing, of the contract proposal April 16. It was approved that day, and the contract was back-dated to begin April 1. Money for the contract’s payments will come from the economic development agency “or other source to be determined,’’ according to a state agency document.
The hiring of Foley & Lardner is needed, the agency said, “because of the complexity of the transaction and the specialized nature of professional stadium construction and lease arrangements.”
The firm will help the state with the “planning, investigation and other due diligence necessary to keep the Bills in WNY,” the document states. Glaser, the governor’s senior adviser, told The Buffalo News that Raij and his firm will be important players in the state’s push for a long-term Bills deal.
“We wanted to be sure that we were well-prepared to provide input from all the stakeholders. We wanted to be sure that we were well prepared to deal with what we expect will be rapidly unfolding potential situations with ownership groups and we believe develop of a new stadium could be a very powerful tool to convince a future ownership group to stay in New York,’’ Glaser said.