By Brion Scime:
In case you missed the news, Tom Golisano was recently in the area and mentioned again, that he might be interested in purchasing the Bills should they come on the market. This of course is good news when it comes to trying to keep the beloved Bills in town. Why Tom or any other Billionaire would be interested in the Bills is quiet clear. NFL franchises make money, because of their HUGE TV contracts. Don’t be confused about Golisano’s philanthropy in the area; his interest in the Bills won’t be charity. It will be to make money and due to Buffalo’s economic status that might be tricky on an $800 million dollar investment. When it comes to the collective love that the Bills elicit it’s hard to take an objective look at how Buffalo compares economically with other cities, but one must in order to grasp the situation. I think we all know way down deep down inside that while Buffalo is an amazing small city with incredible neighborhoods, foods, festivals , and arts it lacks in population, tax base, disposable income and corporate citizens, basically everything that makes NFL owners rich. How will Western New York keep the Bills?
First a little bit of history. It was in the twilight of Buffalo’s halcyon days when it was awarded an AFL franchise in 1960. At that time Buffalo was the 15th largest metropolitan area in the country, right behind Minneapolis and just ahead of Houston. Buffalo was still teaming with economic might and civic pride. Today Buffalo is ranked as the 49th largest metro area in the US right behind Birmingham, Alabama. That tells you how far Buffalo has fallen. Buffalo’s glory days of yore are not coming back despite the recent turn around in area development. For 53 years Buffalo has been blessed with the basically a perfect ownership scenario. Ralph Wilson has been committed to keeping the Bills in Buffalo despite being able to make more money elsewhere. Say what you will about Ralph’s commitment to winning, but he has been true to his word in keeping the Bills in Buffalo. This sweet deal for Buffalo is about to end as Ralph can’t live forever and he has stated that his heirs will sell the team upon his death. Ballpark figures estimate around an $800 million dollar sales price and then the state and local governments kicking in $3-500 million for a new stadium. That will be a mighty tall order in one of the poorest cities in the country.
Let’s look at some more stats:
Buffalo’s is ranked second to last in population compared to the other 32 NFL cities and you can’t really count Green Bay as it is an anomaly that can’t be copied.* So, in essence Buffalo is dead last in population in the NFL. Here is a list of the bottom half of NFL cities by metro population (in millions).
San Diego 3.0
St. Louis 2.8
Tampa Bay 2.7
Kansas City 2.0
New Orleans 1.1
Green Bay 0.3 (112 miles north of Milwaukee 1.5 M)
Also, Buffalo is not as prosperous as other NFL cities. If you look at GDP as an index of a communities economic prowess then Buffalo doesn’t even rank in the top 50 of US metro area’s. Buffalo with an estimated GDP of $47 billion is behind such non NFL cities as:
Orlando $104 B
San Antonio $92B
Salt Lake City $64 B
Birmingham AL $58 B
In fact there are 19 metro areas in the top 50 that do not have a NFL team despite having significantly more wealth and population than Buffalo. If you look our rust belt neighbors, Pittsburg GDP of $115 billion and Cleveland $105 billion you see how far Buffalo is off the mark from these “smaller” market teams. This doesn’t even take into account LA with $765 Billion, but let’s not even go there. Here is a graph of the GDP of the bottom ten NFL cities in order of population.(excluding Green Bay) Buffalo is first in blue.
At roughly half the next smallest team it’s a pretty sober reality that Buffalo faces in keeping the Bills. But, let’s look at the positives. Hands down the Bills have some of the most fanatic, supportive and devoted fans in the league. We have tradition and dedication that other cities would kill for. Unfortunately, this alone won’t be enough to keep the Bills in Buffalo. Secondly and more importantly Buffalo is flanked by other metro areas with significant wealth and population. The Bills are going to have to regionalize the team in a much more dramatic way than has been done thus far, by:
1. Moving out of Buffalo while staying in Western New York
2. Get the proper backing for a new stadium from NY State
3. Find a willing billionaire owner who happens to love the area (insert Golisano).
One idea is to move the Bills to someplace between Buffalo and Rochester to be able to draw upon both metro’s. Batavia because it is centrally located roughly halfway between Rochester and Buffalo and has probably the most infrastructure of any town along the thruway would be an ideal choice. Same team, same name but play all of their games in Batavia. The Rochester metro population is just over 1 million and according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis Rochester’s GDP is slightly larger than Buffalo’s. More importantly Rochester has a significantly healthier corporate presence and disposable income than Buffalo. By moving the team closer to Rochester it would support the franchise in much greater numbers.
When you look at Rochester and Buffalo together they have a combined population of almost 2.2 million and a GDP of over $95 billion, and these numbers go up even more if you include the other WNY counties that are not counted in Buffalo or Rochester’s metro area. (For some reason the Buffalo metro region does not take into account Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Alleghany, Wyoming or Genesee.) When you include these counties you’re looking at roughly 2.6 million Western New Yorkers. This region would be comparable to Pittsburgh and Cleveland and significantly larger than Nashville, Charlotte, and Indianapolis. When you consider that the 8 counties of Central NY have just over 1million people a short thruway ride down the road. One can start to see situation as not so dire and possibly doable. The Bills will truly have to become a regional team with financial and corporate support and sponsorship from all of Western and Central NY. Access to three major upstate metro areas will be crucial in keeping this team in NY.
One might wonder why I am not including more about Canada in this, or even wondering why not a new stadium in Buffalo or even Niagara Falls, so that it is more accessible to Canada. The main reason is football is an American sport. There are no Canadian teams. This team belongs to Buffalo and New York State. In fact it is the only team that actually plays its game in the state. Should the team stay in WNY, it will be asking the state of New York to pony up a significant amount of money. This investment should be targeted to benefit the most New York state residents as possible. I think there would be a lot more pressure and support in Albany to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the Bills if it was truly a regionalized team. Secondly, the Canadians will support the Bills at roughly the same levels whether the team is in Orchard Park, Downtown Buffalo or Batavia. While they might support them more if they games where in Niagara Falls logistically it is still very hard to get masses of people across international bridges. I think this will always put a damper on how many fans in Southern Ontario can truly support the Bills.
While we are on the subject of Canada let me add a word about Toronto. Forget about Toronto! It’s not the answer for the Bills. The current Toronto series is nothing more than a money grab by Ralph Wilson. Toronto as a city is not really ever going to support the Buffalo Bills. You’re more apt to find a Dallas Cowboys or New York Giants fan in Toronto as you would a Bills fan as evidence by the lack of support for the Bills games held in Toronto’s Rogers Arena. The Bills real Canadian support comes from Hamilton, St. Catherine’s and the Niagara Frontier. This area alone has 2 million people and this is where the bulk of the Canadian support comes from and the Bills will need to mine this area for more business especially corporate sponsorship. The Bills should scrap this Toronto spectacle and focus on their real base Southern Ontario between Hamilton and Buffalo.
Finally a stadium is not essential to downtown Buffalo’s future. In fact the amount of space it would take up, and the extreme limitations in how often it would get used make them losers for most downtown areas. While there is a way to build a stadium downtown and have it be a benefit, there is a greater chance that it would do harm. I don’t see any place in Buffalo that it could go where it won’t do significant damage, take up precious waterfront space or cost 10’s of millions in demolition. While farfetched I believe this idea might just secure the Bills for the future in Western NY.
* In 1980, the NFL adopted new stipulations that did not allow teams to have more than 32 owners encompassing team ownership.