In May, The Buffalo News pondered the future of the Bills when 89-year-old owner Ralph Wilson passes away. "The likeliest scenario is that a billionaire from Toronto or Los Angeles will move them out of Buffalo," the paper wrote. Even if you've never set foot on a mound of lake-effect snow, that line has to give you the chills.
The city's been bleeding for decades. In the first half of the 20th century, Buffalo was a boomtown, overflowing with steel plants, textile mills and tycoon money. When the AFL set up shop in 1960, the city's population was 530,000. Then industrial jobs dried up. The latest figures show Buffalo's population is nearly 272,000. That's where the Bills come in. While they've yet to win it all, they've achieved something greater: Eight Sundays a year, they make Buffalo forget just how bad things are.
Make that six Sundays and a Monday this season, since the Bills will play a home game 98 miles away in Toronto, a wealthy urban center of five million people. They'll play seven more north of the border by 2012, pocketing a total of roughly $78 million, twice the franchise's operating income last year. That's much-needed cash for a team that's 24th in the league in revenue. Bills COO Russ Brandon says the experiment is an effort to "bring the brand to a new fan base" and claims the extra cash will make the Bills financially viable in Buffalo. But to many, that sounds like the beginning of the end.
Count me among the worried. Let's face it, the NFL is run by the Jerry Joneses of the world, and small-market teams are a pain in his ass, contributing little to the NFL's shared revenue yet reaping the rewards. On top of that, the richest teams in the league—Dallas and Washington chief among them—prop up the little guys by spreading around an extra 110 mil every year. The Bills got an estimated $10 million from that supplemental pool in 2007. Small wonder the NFL isn't blocking this Canadian experiment.
There is an alternative: The league should man-up and give Buffalo fans a stake in the team, like in Green Bay. Under the Packers model (formed in 1923), 112,088 fans hold more than four million voting shares in the team, having paid from $5 (offered in 1923) to $200 (1998) per share. There's no owner to pocket the profits, just an advisory group of fans to make sure every penny is reinvested in the team. The benefits are huge. In financial straits and need cash? A fan-owned team can sell more shares. Need pols to approve a new stadium? Your franchise is co-owned by voters. If Buffalonians are given a stake in their team, I'll wager my 7-month-old pug, Chamberlain, that the Bills open the 2015 season in new digs on the shores of Lake Erie. Hello, revenue!
Excited about my plan, I called Packers CEO Mark Murphy, who sounded as stoked as a suit gets after telling Brett Favre to scram. "Profits go into the team, allowing us to put money where it's needed," he said. Exactly, I nodded. "Like into a preservation fund in case of a work stoppage." Whoa, Murph. I would've used it to hand out free koozies.
Unfortunately, the odds on fan ownership happening outside Green Bay are long. First, it takes a billionaire owner willing to sell at least a portion of the team to a group of citizens, most likely for less than market value. Wilson has been good to Buffalo for 48 years, but I doubt he's feeling that charitable. Second, the NFL banned the idea in 1961 to keep rich men interested in buying football teams. Two-thirds of NFL owners would need to vote yea to overturn that decision. From the sound of it, though, Roger Goodell isn't totally opposed. While the commish doesn't want the entire league to go communal, on July 28 he told Bills fans in western New York that fan ownership provides "a great bond with the community, something we're trying to achieve."
So, Commissioner, here's my proposal: Lead the way by rallying owners to repeal the 1961 ban against fan ownership. Then Wilson can sell 50% of the team to billionaire Sabres owner Tom Golisano—hey, look what he's done for them—with the other half to be bought by fans. Have the team operate with Golisano as CEO (similar to Green Bay's Murphy) and with an oversight board elected by the fans.
Everybody wins! The NFL is happy because the Bills will generate more of their own revenue, the fans are happy because they'll own their team and, most important, the Bills will stay in the only place they should call home: God's country, Buffalo, New York.