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Wishing community ownership were a viable option for Bills fans

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Rochester Business Journal
May 2, 2014

I come to you this week not merely as a sports columnist but also as the owner of an iconic sports franchise. And I have the parchment to prove it: Three years ago, for a measly $250, I purchased a share of the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League.

Now, I should probably preface this by telling you that 269,000 shares were gobbled up during that last Packers stock drive, the fifth since the team’s initial offering in 1923. As one of 364,122 official co-owners of the team, I really don’t have much to show for my ownership, other than that fancy-schmantzy certificate bearing my name and the Packers logo that hangs in my office. I do get to vote in shareholders meetings, but I don’t have any true decision-making power.

I can’t tell Coach Mike McCarthy to bench quarterback Aaron Rodgers. I can’t order linebacker Clay Matthews to shear the long, blond mane that flows out of the back of his helmet like a horse’s tail. Heck, I can’t even get free tickets to games at Lambeau Field, which recently underwent a nearly $200 million renovation funded in large part by that 2011 stock drive.

I bring up Green Bay’s community ownership model because there’s no doubt in my mind that a similar approach would work in Buffalo. I believe there are enough rabid Bills fans, including several with some pretty deep pockets, to purchase enough stock to meet the nearly $1 billion price that the team will command on the open market. And if community ownership can work in Green Bay, a hardscrabble Wisconsin paper mill town of 100,000 people, it certainly could work in Western New York. Unfortunately, my pie-in-the-sky dream of a Bills team owned by fans will never get off the ground because the NFL won’t let it take flight.

Long ago, the league decided to prohibit the kind of grassroots ownership campaign that saved the Packers, as well as other sports franchises—including our own minor league baseball team, the Rochester Red Wings—in the mid-1950s. The NFL “grandfathered” in Green Bay but doesn’t want any other franchise to join the Pack. Commissioner Roger Goodell and his employers (the NFL owners) prefer individual or small-group ownership by multimillionaires and billionaires, not working-class stiffs like moi. And that’s too bad, because the Packers making a go of it in the land of Giants and Lions and Bears is one of the great underdog success stories of all time.

Despite the NFL’s disdain for community ownership, a creative group of Bills fans has opted not to just stand by and let their team leave without a fight. An organization known as the Buffalo Fan Alliance is hoping to raise $100 million to $170 million, which would be loaned at no interest to a group that promises not to move the team. The arrangement reportedly would save the new owner $8 million to $14 million a year on debt service.

Bills Hall of Fame receiver Andre Reed, former Bills kicker Steve Christie, Buffalo native and onetime Giants receiver Phil McConkey and NBC’s Luke Russert are members of the group’s advisory board. I admire the alliance’s effort, and I hope it will show the new owner(s) how passionate the region is about the Bills.

A lot of coverage has been devoted to Donald Trump’s desire to own the team and supposedly keep it here. Forgive me if I’m just a tad skeptical. Media attention is to the Donald what oxygen is for most of us. This is the same blowhard who also told us he was going to run for president of the United States, governor of New York and mayor of the Big Apple. There also are some questions about Trump’s actual net worth. And even if he has the financial wherewithal, there are serious doubts that he could get the 24 votes of approval he would need from NFL owners.

I think the best hope for the Bills is a billionaire with deep Western New York roots. The names of Tom Golisano, Bob Rich and Terry Pegula have been bandied about, and each certainly could pull this off. But if I were a betting man, I’d wager on the Jacobs family to buy the team from Ralph Wilson’s heirs.

Jeremy Jacobs Sr. and his sons are longtime Buffalonians who made their billions running the Delaware North food service company, which has concession contracts with stadiums and arenas throughout the United States and is still based in this region. The Jacobses also are the longtime owners of the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League.

“We are using our resources, our contacts, our relationships to do everything we can to ensure the Bills stay in Buffalo,’’ Jeremy Jacobs Jr. recently told the Buffalo News. “It’s still early in the process, and it’s impossible to say either way.” There are NFL rules prohibiting ownership of different sports teams in different cities, but they could be circumvented if the sons were designated as owners of the Bills.

Whether it be Jacobs, Golisano, Rich, Pegula, a group headed by former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly or a combination of the aforementioned, the long-term viability of the team in the region will hinge on the stadium issue—whether a new one should be built or whether the Ralph should be renovated even further. This issue will not be easily resolved because taxpayers undoubtedly will be asked to foot a good chunk of the building or renovation costs. That won’t be an easy sell, given that it would amount to corporate welfare in a region with a poor economic climate.

It would be nice, for a change, to see the NFL—a $12 billion-a-year industry—and a team pick up most of the tab. And it will be necessary for elected officials to make sure the state and county have an iron-clad, can’t-afford-to-move, long-term lease similar to the one that has the Bills tethered to Orchard Park at least through the 2019 season, possibly longer.

Again, I wish the NFL’s stance regarding community ownership were different. There would be no shortage of Bills fans, near and far, who would love to be able to say they were co-owners of their team.

Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is in his 41st year as a journalist. 5/2/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


What You're Saying 

Frank Cicha at 9:11:15 PM on 5/5/2014
Scott: Thanks for the "INSIDE" information. I too like the idea of community ownership. Too bad the NFL can't be considered a monopoly like other businesses. Might be interesting to see how they would react to the Attorney General going after them under the Sherman Anti ...  Read More >

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