The long-term future of the Buffalo Bills appeared a bit rosier with the news last month that multiple groups have already expressed interest in eventually buying the team and building a new stadium. This would ensure that the Bills remain in Buffalo instead of moving out of town once the team is sold following the death of team founder and owner Ralph Wilson Jr.
But Bills fans have received, over the past week, a pair of reminders about the potentially pothole-filled road ahead. The Bills announced Friday, July 13 that they will not take advantage of the National Football League’s new, relaxed blackout rules and will still require home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium to be sold out in order to be televised within a 75-mile radius.
In addition, The Buffalo News reported Tuesday, July 17 that the Bills and Erie County are not expected to come to an agreement on a lease extension for Ralph Wilson Stadium by the time the Bills start training camp Thursday, July 26. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who had set the soft training camp deadline, expressed hope the two sides could reach an agreement by the end of the calendar year. The Bills’ current lease expires July 31, 2013.
The recent developments could hinder the Bills in both the short- and long-term. The Bills, who failed to sell out their final three home games last year, were one of four NFL teams to endure multiple blackouts in 2011 and, as such, seemed to be one of the teams that could benefit most from the NFL declaring franchises could set their own blackout policy as long as they have sold at least 85 percent of tickets to a game 72 hours prior to kickoff.
But the teams who choose to take advantage of the new policies will be penalized for doing so: Teams who broadcast a home game that is not sold out will have to pay to the visiting team a percentage of every ticket sold after 85 percent. Such an expense might be too much to incur for a small-market franchises such as the Bills, Indianapolis Colts, and San Diego Chargers, the latter two of whom also announced last week they would still blackout home games that were not completely sold out.
“We are a volume-based franchise,” Bills CEO Russ Brandon said in a team statement. “For us to be successful we have to keep our ticket prices low and sell a great number of tickets.”
While Bills fans may see less of their favorite team on television this season, the negotiations over a new lease may determine how much longer they get to see the Bills play in Buffalo. Without a new lease, the Bills could technically move after this season.
That’s not likely to happen, but there’s still a sizable gap to be bridged in negotiations between the Bills and Erie County. The Bills are reportedly seeking at least $200 million in stadium renovations as part of any new lease agreement, while Poloncarz told The Buffalo News he wants to make sure any lease “…keeps the Bills here for many years to come.”
Such a deal might be tough to come by for a team that will almost surely be sold before its next lease expires. Wilson is 93 and has declared the team will be put up for sale after his death.
“His heirs are going to have a harder time selling the franchise if he signs a tight lease that says they’re going to play in Buffalo for another 15 years,” Smith College sports economist Andrew Zimbalist told The Buffalo News. “So as much as he might love Buffalo and want his legacy to be connected to Buffalo, that would be problematic from his point of view.”
A possible compromise would be the Bills agreeing to pay a penalty if they leave before the lease is up. The Buffalo News noted the Jacksonville Jaguars — another team often suggested as a candidate to relocate to Los Angeles, where the NFL has not had a team since 1995, or elsewhere — can get out of their lease at EverBank Field, which runs through 2029, only by paying off the remainder of the lease or by proving they are losing money.