'A long, tough winter'
BUFFALO -- Mark Poloncarz walks to a bookshelf that lines the bottom half of one wall of his office in downtown Buffalo.
He grabs a two-inch thick tome bound in a blue cover, carries it to his desk and drops it with a thud. This is the Holy Grail for Buffalo Bills fans. It is the road map and instruction manual that they believe will keep NFL football in Western New York.
"We say this is ironclad," says Poloncarz, the executive of Erie County where the Bills' stadium is located. "We believe this is ironclad."
As Poloncarz talks, he keeps resting his left hand on the book as if it's 600 pages of comfort. It contains the 10-year lease between Erie County, New York state and the Bills, a team that has been in Western New York since it joined the AFL in 1959.
Buffalo is a city without a glittering downtown and with winds on the express train from Michigan. But it also has this blue book, which carries weight, literally and figuratively.
The lease is thicker than some NASA manuals, heavier than most bibles and, economically speaking, vitally important. Because Poloncarz and other local officials believe the lease binds the Bills to Buffalo at least through 2020, which they believe gives the community enough time to figure out the best and most secure plan to ensure the Bills never leave.
Los Angeles or London can call all they want. Erie County's lease won't let the Bills move.
"They're locked in," Poloncarz says.
Poloncarz is talking because on March 25, Ralph Wilson, the only owner the Bills ever had, died at the age of 95. That left uncertainty about future ownership, because the team will not go to Wilson's heirs. Though his wife Mary has controlling interest, the team will be sold.
Buffalo is a cold-weather city with an NFL team; cynics call it Green Bay near the Niagara. Buffalo's downtown would fit in one block of New York City, and its waterfront is a curious mixture of highways, overpasses, industry and public use. It has no Fortune 500 companies, and its unemployment rate hovers at or near 10 percent.
Los Angeles or New York or Boston or Chicago or San Francisco it's not.
The unknown leads to uncertainty.
Just down the street from the stadium named after the Bills founder and owner, 28-year-old Corey Huber tends bar at a small pub called Tailgaters.
"Everybody keeps thinking," Huber says, "we're going to lose the team."
The Anchor Bar, located a short distance from downtown, is the place where the signature sauce for Buffalo chicken wings was invented. Ivano Toscani has managed the bar for decades, and its walls are lined with photos of the well-known who have stopped to taste the original Buffalo chicken wing.
"People know that they're gonna move eventually ... " Toscani says in broken English of the Bills. "It would be a big loss."
"I think it's a matter of time before they actually move," says Kenny Boone, a counselor in the Buffalo school system, who started the conversation by talking optimistically about how long the Bills would stay in town.
Maybe it's small-town fatalism, an extension of the Cleveland syndrome. The Browns, after all, left Cleveland from 1996 to 1998. But former Browns owner Art Modell put himself in serious debt, something Wilson never did. That it happened at all, though, has drawn notice.
"That cemented in everyone's mind that the team could leave," Poloncarz said. "So we need to do everything possible [to ensure] that it doesn't."
The angst is something very real, and something people like Poloncarz and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown must fight.
"The Bills are very important to this community," Brown says. "They're part of the fabric of this community. They always have been since their beginning, and hopefully they always will be."
Ralph Wilson Stadium rises from what looks like farmland south of the city of Buffalo, its lights the tallest figures on the horizon. Cranes rise above the stands, the sound of hammers and drills prevalent. Late in the afternoon, workers in bright yellow shirts and coats end their shift and leave wearing hard hats and carrying coolers as $130 million in renovation is completed, with $100 million coming from public money.
On the day Wilson died, Erie County officials were giving the media a tour of the renovations. A day that was supposed to focus on the future and improvements suddenly turned into one of sadness.
The few days prior the city had been reading about the health of former quarterback Jim Kelly, who quarterbacked the Bills in their four Super Bowl appearances and who stayed in Buffalo after his career ended. He became part of the community, "the most beloved figure in the city of Buffalo," says Ulmer, whose family has had Bills season tickets since the team's first game in the old AFL.
Kelly now fights oral cancer. He's already had part of his jaw and teeth removed, and now must undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Kelly said he and his family are praying for a miracle. The executive director of the hospital where the chemotherapy and radiation will be performed said Kelly's condition remains "very treatable and potentially curable."
"It's what everybody is talking about," Huber says. "Losing [Wilson] and then seeing what happened to Kelly is killing the mood for everybody."
Earlier in March, the community had come together to hold a large fundraiser for 4-year-old Ben Sauer, a Clarence, N.Y., identical twin with an aggressive form of brain cancer. A blog on him reads: "Pray for Ben Sauer, a little boy waiting on a miracle." The combined community effort to help him and his family is just one way Buffalo's stature as a big city/small town is displayed. Then came the news that Kelly's cancer had returned, followed by Wilson's death.
"It's just sort of like, whew, can't we get a break. It has felt like that lately," Poloncarz said. "It's cast a pall over everything that has been a long tough winter."
Poloncarz won't compare losing a football team to the suffering of a family dealing with a child's illness.
But he understands what the Bills mean to the area.
"If the team left, it would be devastating on the psyche of the community," he says. "I don't know if it would have as much economic impact as say a major employer leaving, but on the psyche and the long-term thought of what's going on here it would be huge."
Which is why city and county leaders are doing their best to assure people that the uncertainty is unfounded and the Bills, as Poloncarz says, "are not going anywhere."
Erie County owns Ralph Wilson Stadium. The county leases the building to the State of New York, which then subleases it to the Bills. All those documents are in the blue book, as is an agreement that is the key to the team's future.
That is a non-relocation agreement, with specific terms to keep the Bills in New York.
"I'm not blind," Poloncarz says, "the worry does exist."
But in the next breath he says that the non-relocation agreement is a separate document with teeth, not just a clause in a bigger document.
The 10-year lease was signed in June of 2013. The only time the team can buy out the lease is in 2020, for $28.4 million. That window is short, though, and if the team does not use its option at that point the terms of the original lease are in effect.
Which takes the team back to the non-relocation agreement, which specifies that the county can go to court to force the Bills to stay based on "specific performance," a legal term that means that the team agreed to perform certain acts to fulfill the lease, and if it doesn't the county can force it to.
The Bills declined to comment for this story, saying they did not want to make any comments until the team and Wilson had time to talk to the NFL, the county and the city.
But voiding a lease that has a specific performance clause is extremely difficult.
"Teams cannot terminate under a specific performance clause -- cannot," Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp., told John Kryk of the Toronto Sun at the NFL's annual spring meetings in Orlando. Ganis has been involved in the development of new facilities in several different U.S. cities.
"New York State and Erie County wrote this in properly to keep the team there for at least seven years," he said. "And Ralph Wilson, [Bills president] Russ Brandon and [Bills CFO] Jeff Littmann knew exactly what they were doing. And the NFL knew exactly what it was doing when it approved it."
"So a lot of people," Poloncarz says, "are like, 'Well the NFL will ignore those provisions if they want to bring somebody else in to move the team.' And the answer is no, [the Bills] could never have signed these agreements but for the NFL agreeing to it."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell seemed to acknowledge as much when he said shortly after Wilson's death that "we know the terms of that lease, and we all know we have to find a long-term solution to keep the Bills there, and that's what we'll continue to work to do."
The non-relocation agreement now is looked on as Wilson's last great gift to the people of Buffalo. Poloncarz says he cannot envision the county losing should the agreement be tested in court.
"Because let's assume the team tries to move," he says. "We go to a court of law. The court of law is here in Erie County. Not in Delaware. Not in New York City. It's here.
"What judge in their right mind that lives in the community is going to say, 'Yes, you can move the team for $400 million.' When you've already agreed as an organization you're not gonna move the team and you bought the team pursuant to the agreement saying you're not going to move the team.
"So I feel comfortable the team is not going anywhere in the near future."
And if the team does somehow win in court, it still must pay a penalty based on a figure the county, team and state determined would be the value to the county for losing it. That penalty -- Poloncarz says it's not a buyout -- is $400 million.
Poloncarz says that alone is a deterrent to a new owner, who would have to buy the team, build a new stadium in a new city, pay the NFL relocation fee, win a lengthy court case and pay all those costs -- and then pay the $400 million penalty.
It would take deep pockets to assume all that debt.
Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at the Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College at City University of New York, said the language of the lease "seems to make it very difficult that the Buffalo Bills will be able to move."
But Edelman, whose expertise is sports law and business, says one way it could happen is if the court determines the specific performance clause was punitive as opposed to compensatory.
"There is the possibility the Buffalo Bills would be allowed to breach their contract and move subject to a requirement that they pay damages back to the municipality," Edelman says. "We have seen this before where teams under contract to play in a municipal stadium have nevertheless moved and courts have not enjoined such a move, most recently in the context of the Seattle SuperSonics and their breach of lease with Key Arena to move to Oklahoma City."
The key is whether the $400 million fee was written "not in an attempt to estimate damages but to punish a party," Edelman says, adding: "If it's introduced that $400 million exceeds actual losses to deter a move, there's a chance a court would not uphold it."
Naysayers also say the $400 million is a small fee to someone willing to buy the team and establish a beachhead in an area like Los Angeles that can produce revenues via luxury suites and club seats that Ralph Wilson Stadium cannot. Wilson operated the team after spending the miniscule sum of $25,000 to buy it, which meant he could make money in Buffalo -- which ranks just ahead of Fort Wayne, Ind., and just behind Lincoln, Neb., in population for U.S. cities.
The stadium is the sixth oldest in the NFL, and one of the most archaic in modern NFL terms. Which means too few luxury suites, not enough club seats and in need of more high-priced items that drive revenue growth. It sits part underground in a remote area south of town, and is surrounded by parking lots that encourage tailgating but do little to spur development.
"They're saying it's what, $400 million to break the contract, but there's also people saying on different talk shows and what not that by that time the NFL's going to be worth so much money that whoever gets the team it's going to be chump change to them," Huber says at Tailgaters.
Which might be the problem with talk shows.
A March 29 column in the Buffalo News that basically said to kiss the team goodbye was treated with a shrug by city leaders.
"That story had absolutely zero impact on me," the mayor says.
As Brown talks he sits in the office of a City Hall that has to be one of the most beautiful in the country. Built from 1929 to 1931, it has an ornate lobby/vestibule that draws all eyes upward. But it was built when Buffalo was in its heyday, just like the General Mills flour plant was built near the lakefront in the city's better days. It still rests on what would be prime public land, white smoke puffing out of its chimney.
Though the city is recovering from an economic downturn, its heyday was a different time. A photo of downtown in the 1940s that hangs in Gino and Joe's Pizza parlor has a lot more people in it than are there on a relatively warm March Wednesday.
The mayor sees the Bills as part of the city's recovery.
"I think it's clear that small market teams can be quite competitive," he says. "One of the things about the Buffalo Bills and this organization and this community is the fan loyalty is incredible. When the Bills are winning the stadium sells out, when the Bills are losing the stadium sells out. This isn't like other parts of the country where you have a couple of losses and there are people sitting in the stands with bags over their head."
A Stadium Working Group has been formed, with 21 members, seven chosen by the state, seven by the county and seven by the Bills. Poloncarz is a co-chair. The Bills still are in Year 1 of the lease, and the county and state have six years to decide if a new stadium is needed, or if the old one can be renovated. Brown sits on the stadium group and would love to see a stadium downtown to drive the economy of the state's second largest city, but agrees the priority is to keep the team in Western New York.
Speculation has discussions pointing to a lakefront dome, a possible move closer to Niagara Falls or a new stadium close to the old one. Poloncarz says the process has just started, but he's not ready to call Ralph Wilson Stadium a fossil. He points out cities like Kansas City and Green Bay were able to renovate older buildings and modernize them.
The Stadium Group has one very powerful member in Sen. Charles Schumer, who has heavy political backing from other members of Congress, and from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"Keeping the Bills in Western New York has always been one of my top priorities," Schumer said in a statement released when he was appointed to the stadium group. "And it will remain that way throughout this process."
There is the possibility the Buffalo Bills would be allowed to breach their contract and move subject to a requirement that they pay damages back to the municipality. We have seen this before where teams under contract to play in a municipal stadium have nevertheless moved and courts have not enjoined such a move, most recently in the context of the Seattle SuperSonics and their breach of lease with Key Arena to move to Oklahoma City.Marc EdelmanAssociate professor of law
"Not only is he committed to keeping the team here, but he certainly has a good relationship with Roger Goodell," Poloncarz says. "And I think it's always nice to have someone, who if they really needed to in a pinch, threaten, 'Hey we might have some antitrust issues here.' That doesn't hurt. Because I know that major league sports does not like the word 'antitrust.'"
To say that panic and stress are wearing fans into zombies afraid of losing a team overstates the issue.
Community leaders feel they've done their best to be prepared for this situation, and feel they have six years to come up with a solution. If things go well any uncertainty felt now may turn out to be unfounded.
Steve Ulmer is president of Davis-Ulmer Sprinkler Co., which he calls the largest installer and operator of fire sprinkler systems in the area. His grandfather started the company, his father took it over and he now runs it.
Ulmer's father was one of the team's original season-ticket holders in 1960, but gave them up when the Bills struggled in the '60s. Steve, then 14, took them over and paid for the tickets with his paper route. The tickets have been in the family more than 50 years.
"Ralph was an amazing guy and was totally dedicated to this city," Ulmer said. "I truly don't know what his wishes were. I just believe that a guy who was that dedicated to keeping the team in the city will have given us a chance to retain it."
Down the street a few hundred yards from Tailgaters is Kettles, a watering hole with a log cabin look.
There, Steve Gorman of Hamburg and John Agro of Orchard Park are enjoying an after-work beverage. Agro's father was one of the engineers who dug the bowl for what was then Rich Stadium in the early '70s.
When the Bills are mentioned, both shrug and say there are enough local people willing to buy the team, that they don't think they'll move.
"Maybe in seven years," Agro says, referring to the one buyout chance. "But that gives them all that time to find a new owner with ties to Buffalo."
Assuming, of course, that the goal of the trust that manages Wilson's estate is to keep the team in Buffalo as opposed to generating as much revenue as possible for the estate. Usually the latter drives decisions for an estate.
But the search for a new owner seems to have begun. While Donald Trump's name received a lot of notice when Trump admitted he'd been approached about buying the Bills, Poloncarz says he knows of eight to 10 people interested, half of whom have local ties. The Buffalo News reported the team's purchase is on a "fast track" and may be approved as early as October.
Names like Jeremy Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Buffalo-based Delaware North, have surfaced. Jacobs' net worth is put at $3 billion, and Delaware North is one of the world's (not country's or state's) largest concession companies. Jacobs owns the NHL's Boston Bruins, so some hurdles must be cleared, but leagues usually find a way to bring in owners they want.
Other names include Trump -- who said on the radio he is totally committed to keeping the team in Buffalo -- and Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
Ulmer favors a new stadium -- "It's time for us to do something new and get modernized." In those six years that the Western New York community has to make a decision, a team could have moved to and from L.A. Twice.
"We have this very comprehensive set of documents that really do encompass just about anything you can think of," Poloncarz says. He spins in his chair behind his desk and points to the vertical windows in his office.
"That's Canada over there," Poloncarz says, pointing to some trees and a small group of medium-sized high rises on the horizon. "That's Fort Erie, and over there is Niagara Falls."
Toronto is a 90-minute drive, but NFL rules do not allow the Bills to consider that market in its sphere because it's outside the U.S., Poloncarz says. Erie County has 1.3 million people, but stretch the Bills' market to Rochester and Toronto -- as the Bills do, with one-third of ticket sales coming from Rochester and Southern Ontario -- and suddenly the team can draw from 4.5 million. Poloncarz admits that the team might make more money in L.A., but it does make money in Buffalo.
"If somebody thinks they're buying this team and it's literally in the middle of nowhere, that's not the case," Poloncarz says. "We're 90 minutes away from Toronto on a drive. For many people in the other markets, that's their drive home at the end of their day of work."
Just how important are the Buffalo Bills to Western New York?
Poloncarz says his county government budget employs 4,000 with an annual budget of about $1.5 billion. The Bills account for about $10 million of that total (not counting the $30 million being spent for renovations).
"That's less than 1 percent," Poloncarz says.
A poll on the Erie County website asked voters what issues matter most. The Bills were one of the choices, and they received the fewest votes -- 7 percent. Thirty-one percent chose lack of speed in economic development.
The unemployment rate in the city of Buffalo was 10.1 percent in August of 2013, and has not been below 10 percent since 2009. Brown knows he needs to fight poverty, oversee a strong educational system and drive investment to revive the city. There is a feeling things are headed in a positive direction -- in the city and county -- but keeping the Bills matters, even if it's more an emotional tie than economic.
"It is integrated into our economy," Brown says. "It certainly is a driver of sorts in the economy. But also psychologically I think it makes people feel good about the community and feel good about themselves. So I think the Bills are very much ingrained in the Buffalo and Western New York psyche."
Poloncarz says the business of the county is structured around social services, health care, safety and maintaining 2,400 miles of paved roads, more than in the states of Delaware and Rhode Island.
"My goal," he says, "is to do what's necessary to keep the team here, within reason.
"I've always said this: I'm not going to lay off child protective service workers, I'm not going to lay off sheriff's deputies, I'm not going to ignore my roads for years on end just to give an unlimited subsidy to an owner to keep a team here.
"I can't do that. I have a fiduciary duty to protect things that need protecting in this community.
"But we will do everything we can within reason to ensure the Bills stay here."
What's key is that Wilson did everything he could, as well.