Over the past week or so I’ve been debating two things: 1) if there is something related to my teams worth writing about, and 2) what that something is. The two biggest sporting events going on at the moment, something involving trophies, baskethoops and insufferable bandwagon hockeypucks fans that I once thought were good people, are not worth my time for two reasons- I hate all four teams involved in them and am not remotely knowledgeable enough to dive into them outside of the intricacies of my burning hatred. And besides, writing about the intricacies of my burning hatred is only fun when it involves my two favorite teams.
Soccer certainly has enough going on to warrant a post; beyond that, my team won its second BPL title in three years, an improbable run that was equal parts fun for watching convincing wins and crippling losses or draws from the teams that sat atop the table the vast majority of the season. But, unlike when Dubs writes about Liverpool, I don’t think any of the Man City fans I know read the blog and if I’m going to gloat to just piss off Dubs, I’ll do that in person when we watch Man City v. Liverpool at Yankee Stadium next month. I mean, if the fans of other teams want some solace, I didn’t get to watch the final game at Mes Que like I would have liked, but at an outdoor bar with my parents, the only one watching the games, let alone the only one in Man City gear. Wait, that doesn’t give you solace? Yeah, I guess it wouldn’t.
For me that leaves the Bills, Sabres and Red Sox. I think there’s four or five of our readers that root for the latter, and as the tightly wound machine from last season unspools, I can’t bring myself to get mad at them. I mean, not as a team anyways, of course there’s individual players that are easy to hate (Pierzynski for one, who for a guy who I’ve always heard described as “I hate him, but I’d love him on my team,” is actually really easy to hate when he is on your team), but are really just showing how improbable last season was and how much I should enjoy that. See, occasionally I’ll wonder what we would all be like not just when the Sabres or Bills reach the promised land, but how we would be the year after, after the parade, after the hangover, free agency, the draft, training camp and the preseason. I’d like to think I wouldn’t much care how they did defending their title, or if I did, that I would continually remind myself of the memories from the previous year and to be thankful. This year’s Red Sox team is a perfect example of why that should be the case. It’s a slog again, anemic hitting, a tire fire pitching rotation, a manager that seems completely befuddled on an almost nightly basis. But last season happened, it was glorious, it was more than so many baseball fans have gotten to experience in decades, and to be angry that Gomes and Buchholz suck now would just be kinda dickish, right?
So yeah, that just leaves the Buffalo teams. Don’t worry, this will only be tangentially about one of them, and also don’t worry, I’m not going to go on another “what does this all mean” post about the talent slowing ebbing away from Western New York; I may be in the- what, my town has THREE FUCKING AREA CODES?- but I still try to be as attuned to the Buffalo sports scene as I can without popping facial capillaries in an icy rage. All seems quiet with the Sabres, although that might simply be because half the fanbase woke up a month ago and decided being a Kings fan would kick ass. I don’t know, the draft is soon, plus there’s whatever washed up corpse the Sabres decide to sign in free agency and inexplicably make captain. There’s also the imminent Scott and Weber re-signings because the front office is so insecure in the team’s shittiness they need to make it obvious. Trust me, they’re shitty, you don’t need to push more Scott shirtsies on us to make us aware. Also, it appears the monkeys who run the marketing department at least figured there was no need to put out a “best games of the season” re-run series this summer because there were only two good games, one was on NBCSN, and the other is Miller’s last game which more people would remember as Steve Ott’s last game because again, half the fans of the team need not only a lobotomy, but a full brain scrambling with those tools from the end of Shutter Island.
Even if I did have a greater familiarity with the legal issues in play regarding the Bills future, this is a situation that needs to be appreciated for how unprecedented it is. This isn’t the Browns announcing in October they’re skipping town; this isn’t the Sonics, their fans and elected officials continually being told their team is safe until suddenly the wake up and find that it isn’t. The lease, if nothing else ensures that if anyone is determined to move the team, they are going to have to put up with a hell of a lot more shit than any other dickhead owner has had to put up with. In previous cases the team has been playing in their new town before the old town has even processed why the money’s gone from the dresser and their daughter is knocked up. There’s no chance an ownership group headed by Rogers or Maple Leaf Sports will be able to claim their plans are to keep the team where they are; the hordes of Bills Mafia is dumb, but they….well the rest of Bills fans….well a majority of people will be able to see through the ruse. There is no benefit to them keeping the team in Buffalo and any attempt to purchase them while claiming they have no intent to move them elsewhere will not pass the smell test.
Can they move them after the designated period, in eight years? Of course; the lease simply speaks towards the intent to move the team before that period expires. Problem here is not simply the fans- who let’s be honest, are never a concern or consideration in these things- but the NFL itself. I struggle to think of an entity that cares more about its image than the National Football League, which has congealed into some sort of malevolent, horrifying beast equal parts Goldman Sachs, Bain Capital, 1920’s Major League Baseball, and the Mafia. This is an entity that fines players if they wear the wrong hat during an interview, fines coaches at the mere implication that there are referees who yearn to make the most crucial parts of the games about themselves, that refute claims they protect the players who bring in the most money while doing just that week after week. Will the shield tolerate not months, but years of empty stadiums, angry mobs, national media excoriating the league as the clock crawls toward 2022? I don’t think so.
That said the focus seems to be reactionary rather than the opposite. The question should not be “what can we do to make the Bills stay,” but “do we even want the Bills to stay?” It amazes me how much Western New Yorkers worry about what the rest of the country thinks about them. I’ve dated a self-absorbed person before, it’s remarkably unrewarding. Buffalo is so concerned about holding onto the only “big time” thing it has when really it’s time to admit that it hasn’t been big time since the McKinley Administration (too soon?). And yes, you can point to the cranes downtown and food trucks on the waterfront- none of which are examples of a growing economy or returning population so much as one benevolent rich guy and some good folks eagerly filling a culinary void- but Buffalo isn’t going to become “big time” again. You know what it can be? What it’s very close to being now- a hidden gem with a lot to offer and a thriving sports culture (I mean, try to keep all your young talent from bolting town because your white collar market is saturated with tumbleweeds but I’ve touched on this before). Building a new stadium, mortgaging the future just when it’s starting to improve, and doing so not in Buffalo’s image but in the demands of what will satisfy the piece of shit running the National Football League won’t do anything but eliminate many options for development and leave half the current season ticket base suddenly priced out of games.
I get it; you don’t want to be told you’re not good enough for the National Football League. But here’s the thing- what if we were the first town to say they’re too good for the National Football League. This isn’t a sports league anymore; it’s basically Monsanto with a concussion scandal. It’s a Red Giant, expanding, swallowing everything it its path before eventually and inevitably collapsing upon itself as a white dwarf. Keeping the team will demand a price that may permanently cripple the region, which will leave it like Athens after hosting the Olympics, or other post-apocalyptic wastelands like Sarajevo or Tampa. Also, to return to the dating analogy, when someone says they want to be with you, but only after you remake yourself in the image that person demands, you must ask yourself if the makeover is really worth it.
Honestly, how much fun is being in the NFL, really? Is the narrative machine really a fun one to ride? Is it fun watching a pregame show with Frank Caliendo doing a John Madden impersonation while six idiots burst into fake laughter thousands of miles away? Is it fun dealing with the commercial-kickoff-commercial trifecta? What about the fact that you, me, and everyone who gets paid to talk about the game has no idea what a goddamn catch is? And most of all, what about this? Is this fun? Reading leases, trying to choose which rich white asshole you want to swoop in and save your team, right after they rob the governor, county executive, you and your children and your children’s children blind? Is it fun with the future of your favorite team in everyone’s hands but yours? Is it fun that none of this, NONE of this, is about how good the Buffalo Bills are, or are going to be?
Do I hate football? No, I love football. I also love the Bills. And people should be talking about the best way to keep them here but that needs to be after the discussion whether it’s the right move. Unfortunately it seems all parties involved including the fans moved onto how to keep them here because the answer to “is it best to keep them here?” was such an obvious “yes,” there was no need for any discussion to the fact. OBVIOUSLY two professional sports teams are better than one, and that’s a point that I’m willing to grant. But at the same time can we still pack in 75,000 fans eight games a season, and more than that do we have the businesspeople to snap up the requisite suites and seat licenses in whatever new stadium it would take to keep the team here? Because the sacrifice goes far beyond what the taxpayer burden would be, it goes into becoming aware that whatever entity that remains as the Buffalo NFL team will be far different than the one you and I have grown up seeing. Basically, remember that band you liked who then got huge and subsequently really annoying and shitty and following their music just wasn’t worth the hassle anymore? Because that’s your Bills with a new stadium in the 21st Century NFL.
What we need is another plan. Everyone is so damn focused on keeping the team here because the only other option is the team not being here and nothing in their place, just a void that lord knows the Bisons and UB football can’t fill. The Bills either stay and we’re suckers or leave and we’re losers. With those as the only two options I can say I understand the desperation, as sad and inevitably fruitless it is. I also understand that everyone with local ties that actually has the capital (which is what, three guys?) is focusing on what, if any, role their's will be regarding keeping the Bills here. That’s fine; that task should be at their forefront, and no one’s going to listen to a “well I actually don’t give a shit if they leave but HERE’s what I want to do when they do,” moment of clarity. But the fact remains that there needs to be an alternative pitch in a drawer somewhere if not for now, but at least after the Bills future crosses the event horizon and we know they’re leaving but they’re still here, like that super awkward phase where you’re sharing an apartment with someone you already broke up with. Who can deliver such a pitch and make it come to fruition? I don’t know, are there any rich Buffalonians that aren’t currently ruining the city school system? Actually, if there’s a plan that can actually be provided in the way we thought the Bills bid would be- a group of reasonably wealthy folks band together to give Buffalo what it deserves- this would be that plan. Do they get to be the knights that save the Bills? No, they just get to spearhead the about face, the plan we need, not the one we necessarily deserve.
What’s this plan? Well, if you don’t follow me closely on twitter it’s going to be a little out there. It may seem like I’m offering you an Army Pete instead of a G.I. Joe, a Big Mac instead of a Porterhouse. But let me state pre-emptively the NFL is not the G.I. Joe or the Porterhouse so much as a mansion infested with termites. Are you going to stop reading after I say it? Promise me you won’t because if you’ve made it this far, maybe you can make it a little farther.
I can’t speculate what the tailgating rules would look like at some fantastical new stadium, but I know the way the rules at RWS have been trending the last five years or so. Also I think we all know that the ticket prices at any new stadium, if they won’t price many current ticketholders out of tickets, will certainly make it more of a struggle to keep their seats. There’s also debate as to whether those seats will actually be any, you know, good. And that’s before we even get into the PSL question. Now, let’s imagine a stadium, say around 30,000 people, a little bit larger than what Hamilton just had built for the Tiger-Cats. That stadium cost $145.7 million, which is of course no drop in the bucket, until you remember that the County just spent $130 million dollars on renovations to the Ralph just to keep the team stuck in it for another decade! Minnesota is providing the Vikings with a stadium at a total construction cost estimated to be $975 million dollars. Add that to whatever someone is going to have to shell out for the Bills- Forbes estimate $792 million dollars- to keep them from the hands of a team determined to move them.
Also, if you’re going to come at me with an NFL v. CFL talent gap argument, I’ll save you the time. The Buffalo Bills have been playing the same sport as the other 31 teams in the NFL approximately 35% of the time the last fifteen years. And don’t tell me the fact that you watch the other teams has anything to do with the Bills. You watch the other teams because of 1) gambling and 2) the fact they play a sport that doesn’t look remotely similar to what the Bills play. Let’s see, do you like a pass-happy league with a wide open field and high scoring? Congrats, you’d love watching the CFL. Do you like rabid fanbases and tailgating, cheap tickets, rivalries, prime-time games on the weekends? Congrats, you’d love watching your CFL team. Fuck, work out a deal with the NFL while the moving trucks are warming up to acquire the trademark rights and keep them as the Bills. Would it be the same? Of course not, but it’s a fucking option and it’s a hell of a lot better than moping around wondering what you did wrong. If/when the Bills leave it isn’t going to be because you weren’t a good enough fan, it’s going to be because this is what the NFL is, and has been for a while.
You know what would be fun? A Saturday night in late July, some year in the future, with the TSN game of the week being the inaugural game for the CFL Bills, hosting Hamilton in their new stadium, seating 35,000 on the waterfront, on Buff State’s campus, wherever we decide to put a stadium that doesn’t destroy the city’s credit rating and turn it into Northeast Baltimore. The Hamilton fans pour over, half antagonistic, half welcoming while we toast to our shared hatred of Toronto. Those familiar rivalries with Montreal and Ottawa get another twist, and we don’t have to worry about toughening it out through the December games because the damn Grey Cup falls in November. The NFL Bills are going to sell for well north of a billion dollars. The Ottawa ownership team purchased the rights to their expansion team for seven million dollars. Oh, and that Ottawa expansion team puts the total number of CFL teams at nine. Ten would even things out, wouldn’t it?
There are questions, sure. With TSN not offered in Western New York, how would we watch the games? NBCSN and ESPN3 seem to have almost exclusive rights here which means they could be watched but not as easily as one would like. Who knows, maybe this would give rise to a regional sports network like an FSN affiliate; lord knows if the Sabres could wrestle out of the MSG contract there is enough there between the Sabres, four colleges, the Bisons, CFL Bills, and Bandits (if you’re one of those people). Would the CFL be amenable to it? One could say they’d be leery after failing so spectacularly on American expansion in the 90’s but this isn’t Vegas, Shreveport and Baltimore, this is Buffalo. There will be no question, not with the Bills gone or leaving- this would be extra hilarious with a Rogers owned NFL team just running clock to 2022- whether the support for football will be there. Will people pout, stay away, swear off the NFL and shun the CFL Bills because they have a little maple leaf in the logo? Sure. Just because there’s a new Bills team doesn’t mean it’ll be the same. But will there be enough support, enough eager to give a big “fuck you” to the NFL, enough defiant football fans to show up for “Thanksgiving” weekend games in October? Or to travel to Hamilton for the QEW battles? I’d be willing to bet on it, and bet that the CFL would be downright eager to add another team with the feasibility of their Toronto franchise dead with the NFL in the picture and dying anyways without it.
The stadium can be designed and pitched for dual use for both the MLS and CFL teams. There will be no need to watch games in a half empty NFL stadium or a weird shaped baseball stadium for two, five or ten years. Ideally both franchises are owned by the same group so discussion about the stadium dimensions and amenities goes smoothly. Perhaps to show the interest in an MLS franchise, the interested group funds a season or two in the tier directly below the MLS. The combination of a forward thinking ownership group with forward thinking politicians (there may be one in WNY but he’s not insignificant) would turn the narrative surrounding the NFL Bills departure/new stadium fiasco on its head. It is no longer “Buffalo is/is not good enough for the NFL,” it is “Buffalo: The Biggest Small Sports Town in the Country.” Summer, the insufferable time where, when the conversations weren’t about tanking and trusts they were still about mini-camps and free agents, is suddenly a time where two professional teams are playing, where you can walk into a bar and see one of your teams playing, where affordable sports, tailgating and the camaraderie that you love about sports will be at your disposal. Where you can get fired up about FC Buffalo’s chances to win the Empire Cup against NYCFC and the Red Bulls, or about the Bills chances in the first round of the playoffs against the Alouettes.
It’s not a pretentious idea, it’s a pragmatic idea. Something we love may- probably is- leaving. There is nothing you, me, or even the Governor can do about it. It’s not our fault. What will shape the future of city, or at least its narrative, economically and culturally, is how we deal with that abandonment. We can scream at the wind that it isn’t fair, try to show the NFL that we deserve a new team like Cleveland, or have depressing viewing parties like a Rams group still does in L.A. Hell, I’m sure some including more than a couple paid scribes will blame the Sabres owner for not spending a billion dollars to buy the team himself. There can be scapegoats, there can be blame, and there can be indignant anger. I know we’re all very good at those things. What is harder than signing a petition, or donating to a kickstarter, or tweeting Donald Trump (cuz seriously, you animals?) is changing your perspective, changing what you think is best for the area. As it stands right not there are two outcomes: the Bills stay or the Bills leave.
But what if there’s a third option?
The Bills get replaced.