By Ed Kilgore
My immediate reaction when Rocco Termini mentioned his idea to me about the possibility of pursuing a new stadium for the Bills in or around Hamilton Ontario was total skepticism. Hamilton? Aren't they still mad at us for not wanting them to have an NHL team? But the more he laid it out, the more I realized a couple things: some people have vision while the rest of us are wearing bifocals. If you have yet to check out the Hotel Lafayette downtown since Rocco spruced it up, by all means do so, and you'll see what I mean by vision. He was advised by most people not to invest in this once grand but fading facility, but he looked at the dust and stained chandeliers and saw what it COULD be, not what it was.
Buffalo needs people with vision, but more than that, people who can get things done. We have lots of the former and few of the latter. Bass Pro? A new signature bridge? The waterfront being fully developed? We're getting there with a crawl, but we could at least be jogging by thinking outside the box a bit.
It isn't about what we think we deserve or what's fair. It's about how we maximize a huge resource, and that's the people who are near us who live across the border in Canada. We need to acknowledge it benefits all of us to think in terms of this being a region, with Toronto the hub. That's where the power is, and all we need to consider is tapping some of that power while not giving away the farm. It can be done.
Forget for a moment the Bills are going through yet another disappointing season. Most of us still identify with them and love it when they win and curse them when they lose, but they are Buffalo's most visible identify to the rest of the world by FAR. Even now, in other countries, you'll see an occasional Bills jersey that goes back to the Super Bowl teams of the 90's. Many of these people have never even been to Buffalo, and some make it a point to get here at some point to see for themselves what all the fuss is about.
It was purely coincidental that the same day Termini revealed his vision of Hamilton we also saw a beautiful drawing of a splendid water front stadium downtown. Now THAT'S what we're all talking about, and that's exactly what all of us would love to see unfold in the not so distant future.
Here's where it gets murky though.
One of the main reasons now 94-year old Ralph Wilson is able to keep ticket prices at or near the bottom of the NFL every year is because he has no debt. The Bills are one of the only teams in the NFL with that situation, but right now who knows how long that distinction will last if rumors of Ralph's failing health are true. I hope Ralph lives to be 105 and laughs at us all, but it isn't premature to think about the future of the Bills and their relationship with Buffalo NY.
No matter how wealthy a new owner might be, and Ralph has made it clear the team will be auctioned after his passing, that new owner will finance at least half of the franchise cost. It would be stupid to pay all cash, and anybody that can afford to buy an NFL team isn't dumb. The Cleveland Browns just sold for an even billion, and the Bills would be somewhere in that ball park most likely. How would the Bills, in the 51st tv market, make up the difference once there is a debt load that large?
A new stadium, and higher priced suites. Neither of these items is likely for Buffalo, no matter how great the drawings look or how much we wish it so. On the other hand, a stadium halfway between Buffalo and Toronto is a different beast altogether. Like Foxboro is between Boston and Providence. Kansas City season ticket holders come from South Dakota, Oklahoma, Wyoming and other states, and it's the same way for many NFL teams. The Bills have been hugely successful in making the team more regional in recent years, moving training camp to Rochester and playing some games in Toronto.
Not only that, if you add Toronto to the mix in terms of the Buffalo Bills' market size, they go from small market to large market instantly.
The initial reaction to the games in Toronto, from the Canadian perspective, was either ho-hum or outright negative. But gradually, even with a crummy team, the Bills are growing on Canadians. The crowds are becoming more enthusiastic and we're seeing more Bills clothing, not to mention the growing number of season ticket holders coming from Ontario. The number is estimated at 15-20 per cent and growing. While the Canadian reaction has been a bit blasé, the increased revenue has been huge for the Bills and will continue to be in future years.
Another interesting aspect of Termini's idea is that the Bills would remain headquartered in Buffalo. Their corporate offices would be here and they would practice here. On Sundays they would simply ride a bus to the stadium in less than an hour, which is close to what many teams do anyway. Rather than spend $250 million of the state's money to spruce up the Ralph, use that money to build a state-of-the-art practice facility on the Buffalo waterfront, and use it as a convention center when the Bills aren't there.
Are there negatives to this idea? Geez, where do we even start? Traffic at the bridges for one thing. Different tax laws and different currencies. How do we distribute the revenue? The list goes on and on, and this isn't even touching on the issue that might be the elephant in the room: there is an underlying feeling that we don't want to share anything with our Canadian friends, and no doubt many of them feel exactly the same way about the USA in general and Buffalo in particular.
Hey, how do we know the Toronto big shots would even stand by and allow something like this to happen? They have an arrogance of sorts that comes with knowing they have the financial resources to handle assets that are far more valuable than Buffalo can afford. They realize they won't get the Bills or any NFL team for awhile, but would they give up the dream of a Toronto team of the future to settle for the bird in the hand that would be Hamilton?
Bills fans can't seem to agree on a lot of things. Should Chan Gailey be fired now or after the season? Should Mario Williams be benched? How about Fitz?
Bills fans DO seem to agree they do NOT want anything to do with a stadium anywhere in Canada, which may boil down to this: the Bills in Canada? Or Los Angeles?