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Moving of St. Louis Rams is cautionary tale for Bills fans

You probably breathed just the tiniest sigh of relief last week when the inevitable finally happened. All those years of fretting over the future of the Buffalo Bills felt light-years ago when owners in the National Football League finally agreed to send a team back to Los Angeles.

Pity the beleaguered fans in St. Louis – but at least it wasn’t us.

L.A. will get its team, maybe two. The new revenue brought in by a bigger market will satiate the appetite of the Club of 32, for a time. And we’re sitting comfortably with a lease that keeps the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium until at least 2020.

Don’t breathe so easily yet.

Posturing over a new stadium will heat up faster than you think. In just two years, the Bills, the county and the state can start to siphon off money set aside to maintain The Ralph and put it toward studying new stadium locations, designs and developments. During the rest of the lease, that will add up to $11.8 million just for studying whether to build a new home for the Bills.

It’s a decent move to look ahead well before the lease expires and the stadium turns 50, but there’s a cautionary tale to be found in St. Louis. You can spend good money on architects, alienate your citizens, promise a sparkling new stadium and still watch your team walk away while you still owe stadium debt.

Granted, St. Louis is a different story than Buffalo. The St. Louis region was stuck with a terrible lease that guaranteed a “first-tier stadium” – a promise impossible to keep when the cost of new NFL stadiums has skyrocketed above a billion dollars. In addition, St. Louis was struggling to support three major professional sports teams – a situation that Buffalo hasn’t experienced since the NBA’s Braves left town in 1978.

But the basic economic arguments that Rams owner Stan Kroenke used against St. Louis in a pitch to his fellow NFL owners are realities that Buffalo hasn’t escaped.

“St. Louis lags, and will continue to lag, far behind in the economic drivers that are necessary for sustained success of an NFL franchise,” states a report that Kroenke submitted to NFL owners pitching his proposal to move the team to L.A. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch got its hands on the report ahead of the NFL vote and posted it online.

Kroenke’s report went on to criticize the city’s declining population and slow economic growth, citing various rankings that place the Midwestern city behind other NFL markets. One of them, a U.S. Conference of Mayors report that ranks the economic outlook of the country’s metro areas, placed St. Louis 245th out of 381 cities in projected economic growth, ranking it among the bottom NFL cities.

Guess where the Buffalo metro area lands on the list? Behind St. Louis.

There’s no doubt the authors of Kroenke’s report cherry-picked figures to make the case for a move from St. Louis. But it’s also clear that – no matter how much the NFL says that it values league stability – there are certain cities that are always going to be seen as vulnerable to a move or hefty stadium subsidies, no matter how enthusiastic or wealthy the owner.

In the end, it comes down to economics, plain and simple, and not just for the NFL. It’s as much about your tax bill as it is about the community’s pride. The question will come sooner than you think: How much can we afford?

email: djgee@buffnews.com

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