By Ch2 Sports Director Ed Kilgore
The news that the Bills have extended their partnership with Toronto for another five years, albeit for less dough than the first five-year $78 million dollar gift, should be welcome news for Bills fans who want their team to stay put in Buffalo. Still, as the deal is being finalized, the development has barely caused a ripple around Western New York and Canada.
Oh, the skepticism about the future of this small market franchise remaining in Buffalo after owner Ralph C. Wilson no longer owns the team continues to grow with each new rumor about a prospective buyer who'd love to grab the Bills when they finally put up a For Sale sign.
Although Wilson, soon to be 93 years old, has always insisted the team will not be sold during his lifetime, he has given no assurances at all about what happens after he passes. He says he wants the team to stay in Buffalo, but nobody in his family wants to inherit and run the team. Since the Bills are worth close to $800 million, give or take a few mil here or there, and the estate tax would be substantial, Ralph's wife Mary and his daughters understandably would put the team up for sale.
Nobody really knows exactly what will happen when that happens, except the rumors about who is in the lead to buy the team and who might keep it here or move it will be the fodder for every sports talk show and blog and twitter and column for months.
I do happen to have some encouraging news though, based on a couple sources in position to know what's going on behind the scenes right now, and believe me, it's very busy behind the curtain.
Wilson refuses to say anything about what happens when the team is auctioned off, because understandably he doesn't want the focus about what happens when he's no longer around to detract from the story of how the Bills are doing on the field. Although Wilson needs a walking aid now and doesn't travel nearly as much as he did even a couple years ago, I'm told he's still as sharp mentally as ever and quite excited about this 2012 Bills team. That's what he cares about, not five years from now, even though it wouldn't shock me at all if he's still around then.
Wilson, I'm told, would love to have Bills hall of famer Jim Kelly be a part of any group that buys the Bills, because that would automatically mean the team would remain in Buffalo. Although Kelly makes no secret about his desire to become involved when the time comes, he's quite respectful of Ralph's refusal to talk about the future, and besides, he's still on Ralph's payroll as a "goodwill ambassador".
Quietly, and this isn't coming directly from Kelly, a vetting process has been underway for several months or more, and there are multiple groups anxious to make their best pitch at the Bills when they get that chance. Supposedly commissioner Roger Goodell is aware of this movement but will never openly acknowledge any of it, for obvious reasons.
Ralph is still here!
I'm told some of the groups who've made it known they're interested don't have a clue as to how to go about buying an NFL team and are way out of their league even though they have substantial financial backing.
However, there are at least two or three groups who not only have the financial portfolio to buy the Bills, but who want to keep the team in Buffalo for many years to come.
And that's not all.
These would be owners feel the future of the Bills is almost entirely dependant on the eventual construction of a new stadium either in downtown Buffalo or more towards Niagara Falls and Canada. Not only that, these people would be willing to finance most of the cost of a new stadium privately. I'll believe that when I see it, because I'm skeptical too, but people I respect insist this is true.
For now though, an uplift on Ralph Wilson Stadium will buy some time, and a new lease with Erie County would be part of that obviously. But make no mistake about it, "The Ralph" is not the long term home of the Bills, whether they stay around here or move elsewhere. Yes, the stadium has great sight lines, etc., but compared to all the new stadiums either built or planned the stadium is near the bottom of the NFL in many areas.
There are only five stadiums that were built before Rich Stadium was put up in 1973, and virtually every one of them - with a couple exceptions - has had either a substantial face lift since then or a plan to build a new one.
Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City was built a year before Rich Stadium but recently had a $375 million dollar upgrade that makes the Chiefs at least competitive, but by no means even average as NFL stadiums go.
Candlestick Park in San Francisco was built in 1960 but the 49ers will have a beautiful new stadium in nearby Santa Clara open in 2014. Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego was built in 1967 and is in much worse shape than the Ralph, and if San Diego doesn't agree soon to build a new one, the Chargers could wind up in nearby LA.
Soldier Field in Chicago was built in 1924, but 9 years ago the stadium was completely rebuilt for nearly $700 million. Even though it is now the NFL's smallest stadium, seating about 61,000, it is also a beautiful structure right on the Lake Michigan shore line.
Lambeau Field in Green Bay was built in 1957, but the stadium has had two huge renovations in 2003 and 2012 that cost upwards of $700 million.
The situation with the Raiders in Oakland may be just as "in the air" as the Bills' situation, since the Coliseum was built in 1966 and it's unclear what may happen next. There is speculation the Raiders might share the 49ers new stadium, but it's also clear the A's have plans for a baseball only stadium and won't be sharing the playfield much longer.
So, the Bills aren't the only team that could be "in play" for LA, if indeed the rival groups out there ever come up with one plan everybody can live with. There are a couple beautiful designs on the table, but that's about it. Could the Raiders be headed back to LA, especially since the passing of Al Davis? Possibly.
Still, even with a new owner with lots of money and good intentions, there is no guarantee at all the Bills will eventually get the new stadium they need to survive well into the future.
The partnership with Toronto, and by extension southern Ontario, is of vital importance to the future of the Bills. The NFL wants to increase its exposure in other countries, which is why the St. Louis Rams are now playing one "home" game each year in London. I'm told the NFL isn't eyeing Toronto as a site for the Bills at all, at least for the short term, due to complications with the CFL among other things. But the NFL loves seeing the slow but steady success the Bills have had gaining some support in Canada even with a mostly inferior product.
But the future of the Bills clearly hinges on #1 ownership, but #2 a stadium accessible to Canadian fans as the Bills continue to increase their footprint in Ontario and east to Rochester and beyond.
To sum it up, the Bills could wind up staying around Buffalo for many years to come, but the best thing is for all of us to pray for Ralph C. Wilson to stick around for many more years.