By BRIAN GORDON
Vultures act like vultures, no matter the setting. They see opportunity in death and start circling. With last month’s passing of Ralph Wilson Jr., a Toronto-based group with Jon Bon Jovi as its poster boy has seen an opening to pluck the Bills from Buffalo.
The national sports media tends to focus on the Bills only when it has to: in times of death, or, less frequently, wins. The media glossily painted the narrative of Wilson’s “golden lease,” which the hospice-stricken owner benevolently extolled onto his fan base to ensure their team’s long-term survival in Western New York. To Wilson’s credit, the lease, which is good through 2024, includes a relocation fee ($400 million) that would scare away C. Montgomery Burns (or the more cartoonish Donald Trump, who is reportedly interested in buying the Bills and keeping the franchise in Buffalo. Get used to games at “The Trump”). But Wilson’s grand lease is fool’s gold for 2020, when the relocation fee drops to $28.4 million, a workable price for the .0001-percenters among us. This is when Toronto and Bon Jovi could swoop in and carry the Bills back north of the wall.
The head can make an argument for relocation, for the head is where the numbers lie. Numbers are impartial to factors like passion, loyalty, tradition and heart. You can’t quantify emotional intangible Z. That Bills backers possess a thousand snowplows’ worth of intangible Z is secondary when it comes to dollars and cents. Money is money, and if enough of it is stacked on one side, it drowns out passion. The Bills are a more valuable franchise in a city with more than one metro line. It doesn’t matter if Toronto merely views the NFL as an imported novelty to gawk at while waiting for Phil Kessel to break in his skates. Under the NFL’s revenue sharing plan, the Bills could contribute more to the overall honey pot that owners split if they are playing in a larger market. Each owner and Commissioner Goodell must sign off on the Bills’ sale, which may bode poorly for Team Buffalo.
But what about fan loyalty you ask? I doubt NFL owners or Goodell place much stock in tradition, loyalty or basic human decency. To their credit, valuing the holy dollar over such frivolous sentimentalities is likely what helped make these men their fortunes in the first place. Arthur Blank didn’t get rich handing out union cards to Home Depot employees. Capitalism is a cold science, and NFL owners don’t tend to deviate from the doctrine of C.R.E.A.M.
The Commissioner made public his goal of raising NFL revenue to $27 billion a year by 2027, up from the paltry $9 billion the league currently takes in annually. $27 billion is much more feasible if the Los Angeles Raiders, London Jaguars and Toronto Bills are playing on Sundays. To veto the entrepreneurial spirits of the other owners, Goodell would have to ditch the role of owners’ puppet that he performed with such fervor during the bogus 2012 lockout.
But luckily for Bills backers, the head is also where the numbers lie. The truth, sitting somewhere between my heart and my gut, knows that it’s wrong to take the Bills from Western New York. Like a loving marriage, true fandom means being there through thick and thin.
As Bills fans, we perform mental acrobatics each year to convince ourselves that this ugly team is forever on the cusp of beautification. A premature playoff atmosphere grips the fan base at each rare glimmer of hope. There was that month and a half in 2008 in which the Bills opened 5-1 and Trent Edwards looked like a competent quarterback capable of basic movements. There was Fitzmagic and the indelible image of Fred Jackson, the ballast of too many six and seven-win campaigns and manning the Bills flag after the Patriots Win (that “the Patriots Win” is now a term in team lore speaks to the Bills’ 21st century futility).
Faced with the frequent absence of real meaningfulness, Bills fans psychologically bend the definition of “meaningful” to rationalize becoming emotionally invested in games that the right-mind knows to be inconsequential. If we can just beat the Chiefs and move to 4-5, then go six-for-seven down the stretch against crap teams like the Bucs, we should have a shot at the Wild Card off the tiebreaker. I follow some iteration of this ambitious logic almost every season and I know I’m not alone. We ignore that going 3-5 through the first eight games is predictive of going 3-5ish in the final eight. We ignore that we are just as crappy as the crappy Bucs. We ignore that Jeff “!#%$” Tuel is seeing serious snaps at QB 1. Bills fans want so badly to care, that there is no path to the playoffs too ludicrous to pass buying into.
I don’t think hockey-worshipping Canucks are willing to irrationally care about an ugly non-hockey sports product at Buffalo’s level. So when the inevitable doldrums hit and Toronto’s NFL team is selecting Top-10 in the draft for four straight seasons, the big market may no longer seem as lucrative.
Realizing 2020 is sooner than it sounds, groups like the Buffalo Fan Alliance are beginning to pool regional dollars to keep the team from uprooting. Jim Kelly, recovering from cancer treatment, is looking to get a group together, possibly with Boston Bruins owner and Buffalo native Jeremy Jacobs, to supply the bulk of the money. Their task is to fend off a bigger metropolis and its deep-pocketed men, one of whom has perfect hair and wrote “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Despite the best efforts of Kelly and others, the sale still may come down to the long-term financial advantages Toronto possesses, advantages Western New York can only erase with a time machine.
So for now, Bills fans will cling to the lease agreement like it’s the last Duff’s wing. We will draft blueprints of flammable Bon Jovi effigies. And come autumn, we will care for a team far past the point of reason, and turn Ralph Wilson Stadium into electricity. I will ignore the head and cheer as loud as I can, hoping the sound from the gut will keep the vultures at bay.