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Letting Go of the Buffalo Bills

100 years ago, the city of Buffalo, New York was a shining beacon to the entire world. It hosted an enormous festival showcasing its position as a leader in trade, manufacturing, and economics. Buffalo was set to become the New World’s response to none other than Paris, the capitol of France and legendary City of Light. By virtue of the fact that it was the first city in the world to ever be lit up by electrical power, Buffalo was also nicknamed the City of Light. A heavy industrial base and traders moving in and out of the Erie Canal had placed a steady stream of currency through the city, making it one of the richest cities in the world, and as a result Buffalo was home to more millionaires than any other city in the United States. Much of the old architecture still stands, and walking among the beautiful homes dominating areas in the city can really give one a sense of how important Buffalo used to be. Millionaire’s Row on Delaware Avenue still has the giant mansions, though most of them have been turned into offices.

50 years ago, Buffalo reached its peak as an industrial giant. It also reached its peak population of about 580,000 souls. The steel industry was still going strong, and the postwar generation was still creating plenty of wealth and plenty of able bodies were able to come to the city to earn a comfortable living.

20 years ago, Buffalo’s decline had become evident. The largest steel plant in the world, Bethlehem Steel, closed down and the city still hasn’t quite recovered. The population trickle which began upon the end of the local steel industry had turned into a steady stream, the local government was in an eternal stalemate about every possible issue including what they should have for lunch, and city service cutbacks got severe. Yet, Buffalo retained enough people at the time to still be larger than Las Vegas.

Professional football in Buffalo made sense in either of the first two eras. By the third, the Bills were firmly entrenched as a known Buffalo institution and at their apex as a team, in the middle of a record-setting series of Super Bowl runs. Right now, Buffalo, in decline for a half-century, is in a metamorphosis phase: Realizing the death of its usefulness as a world-class city or an industrial giant, the city appears to be trying remake itself once again. The newest phase is an unexpected one considering the rampant poverty and a high school graduation rate of a pathetic 47 percent, but here it is: Between the Nickel City’s unexpected status as an atheist hotbed – the Center For Inquiry, a highly-regarded think tank of atheism known and pushed by some of the most prominent atheists in the world – the sudden emergence of the University of Buffalo Bulls as a power in college basketball, and the growing number of cyclists, bicycle trails, and public bicycle racks, Buffalo apparently has its heart set on becoming a young hip intellectual hub like Austin, Madison, or Louisville. But to help complete this transformation, the city has to come to terms with an idea the staunch old guard finds as unthinkable: The expulsion of the city’s beloved NFL team, the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills, an original AFL team and winner of two titles during the pre-Super Bowl era, are close to the city’s soul. It’s easy to understand why, too: The NFL is the biggest league in the country’s most popular sport, and having an NFL team is a shout-out to the world that your home is a big-time, major metropolis on the national scene. While Buffalo isn’t making it as that anymore, you don’t have to look very far to see how important Buffalo used to be. And this is where the Bills come in; they’re the final, loosely hanging strand connecting the city to its glorious past. Letting them go is understandably upsetting to the old guard, because the walkout of the Bills means the prideful city’s official death as a meaningful place with a known national name.

There’s no more avoiding it. The Buffalo Bills are ready for their stage right exit and everybody knows it, even if they don’t care to acknowledge it. The majority of football fans in the Buffalo area are trying to reassure themselves using a series of poorly constructed – and just as easily destructed – arguments about other small metro areas with football teams. They like to use the examples of Green Bay, Jacksonville, and New Orleans the most, which I don’t get. It’s mostly reassurance, as the arguments revolving around those three cities show a convenient ignorance of football economics. First of all, Jacksonville is in no way a small market. It is a city in which the county government has consolidated into the city government, and so what the so-called experts refer to as a small market is one of the largest cities in the country by population – Jacksonville’s population of over 800,000 is larger than that of popular culture centers like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle by a considerable margin – and its area makes it the largest city in the country by size; Jacksonville is even larger than Los Angeles. A city like that can’t even approach small.

New Orleans gets mentioned a lot too, but no one ever mentions the fact that the Crescent City still had about twice as many people as Buffalo before Hurricane Katrina blew it away. It’s true that a very large chunk of the population, upon the destruction of their homes, found jobs and places to live during their impromptu moves and stayed in those places. But New Orleans has around 343,000 people right now, which is over 100,000 less than what it was before. But more to the point, New Orleans is a center of unique culture with a strong base in tourism and it’s also home to one of the largest and busiest seaports in the world. A lot of people move through the city and put money into the local economy.

Green Bay is legitimately small. It’s is the smallest market in the NFL and the smallest market on the entire continent with a professional sports team. When the Packers were formed in 1919, Green Bay’s population was around 30,000, and the team has stayed with the very small growth of the little burg in northern Wisconsin. Green Bay’s population didn’t hit six digits until the 2000 census. People make the Green Bay argument by pointing out the team’s ownership by collective, but there are between-the-lines details which need to be chewed on: First of all, the NFL reserves the right strictly for Green Bay and is famously unbending for its rules. Buffalo probably won’t receive collective ownership rights; while the NFL did bend enough to give the Super Bowl to New York City, it also runs its main base in New York City, and New York City has the money. The Packers are supported by fans who buy stock in the team when the team holds stock sales. What no one mentions is that shares of stock are offered for $250 apiece; there are currently 112,015 people – more than the population of Green Bay – who hold close to 1.5 million ownership shares with the Packers. No fan is allowed to hold over 200 shares, and while the shares guarantee voting rights, the redemption price is minimal, no dividends are ever paid, the stock can’t appreciate in value even though private sales frequently exceed the stock’s face value, and stock owners don’t get special ticket benefits. They have to wait in line like everyone else.

Furthermore, the Packers are one of the oldest and most storied and successful teams in the NFL. They are also one of the most popular. Their history includes 13 titles, more than any other team in the league and a solid four more than their closest runner-ups, the Chicago Bears. The Super Bowl trophy was named after one of their coaches, for god’s sake! Over 20 Hall of Famers have been Packers. They have a waiting list of 86,000 names waiting for a chance to go to Lambeau Field to see their idols play in person. The waiting list is said to be over 30 years long, but the team estimates that only 90 tickets a year are turned over and so the actual wait is estimated to exceed a whopping 955 years, so Packers tickets become heirlooms. Every Packers game has been sold out since 1960, an important fact because the Packers endured a long period of sustained horridness on the gridiron between Vince Lombardi’s death and Brett Favre’s years. The Bills just crossed their half-century mark in their existence. To show for it, they have two pre-Super Bowl era titles (1964 and 1965), four straight AFC Titles from the early 90’s, and extended periods as doormats complimented by occasional playoff years and a single period of sustained gridiron excellence from about 1988 to 2000. They sell out a lot, but owner Ralph Wilson has frequently found himself buying out the unsold tickets in order to get the games on local TV stations. Their first real superstar is now publicly seen as a murderer whose lawyer got him off by playing the race card. There’s no way the Bills would ever sell enough stock for a fan ownership collective to work. The mass appeal just isn’t there, and Buffalo natives couldn’t afford it, which kills both the firsthand and secondhand fans of the team as Bills stockholders.

The Bills are killing Buffalo’s future because of the way they dominate the old guard’s mindset. One thing about sports teams is that they tend to cost a lot of money, which is on the backs of taxpayers even though the teams themselves are private organizations. Teams don’t build stadiums themselves anymore, and the home of the Bills, Ralph Wilson Stadium, will cost $100 million in renovations. To even get a team in the NFL, a franchise fee has to be paid, which these days numbers in hundreds of millions of dollars. The newest team in the NFL, the Houston Texans, came with a franchise fee of $700 million. Numbers like that aren’t small, and they’re not prices Buffalo can pay. Yet, the old guard is still lining up to suck off the NFL’s proverbial pecker, ready to do anything it can to keep the Bills playing in Buffalo. That means they’ll try to excuse any method of payment possible to try to keep a team in a location the league doesn’t want it in. They’ll argue economics and job creation, music to the ears of Buffalo but ignoring the fact that the city’s entire decline has happened since the Bills appeared. There’s probably not a connection between the two, but it doesn’t bode well for a group trying to argue that Buffalo should hand over more money it doesn’t have. The existence of the Bills hasn’t created jobs or pumped money into the economy.

Even if the argument by economics did work, it would do little to alleviate the fact that the Bills are the NFL’s current dead team walking. Although the city is trying to emerge from its death pattern, it still has a nasty reputation to deal with. Buffalo is known for three things nationally: Snow, chicken wings, and bad football. Willis McGahee and Terrell Owens, who have both played stints with the Bills, weren’t impressed. Rob Johnson exploded in an interview. Free agency has wreaked havoc on the Bills because of the city’s image, and about the only real draw for a player coming in is the team’s potential to be a winner. Without that, Buffalo is a forlorn football outpost because the team isn’t known for taking chances on bad-boy players. Terrell Owens was an aberration, but then again, Terrell Owens isn’t exactly a bad boy, either. He’s excitable and has frequently been seen as a detriment to locker room chemistry, but as a human being, he’s clean.

The Bills aren’t even the number one team on Buffalo’s sports radar anymore. Buffalo is great in its football devotion, but even better in its devotion to niche sports. Hockey, and the Buffalo Sabres, have supplanted the Bills as the most popular team and sport. This makes sense because the Bills have been a terrible team for the vast majority of their existence. The Sabres haven’t been real contenders all that often, but they’ve been a very good team for the most part, and they’ve made the playoffs in 29 of their 42 years, winning their conference three times and the regular season championship once. The city is also immensely devoted to its Triple-A baseball team, the Bisons, ten-time winners of their league, and in 1992 Buffalo was introduced to the awesome sport of lacrosse and the National Lacrosse League in the form of the Buffalo Bandits. The Bandits have since won four titles and thousands of devout fans who scream their lungs out at games. They share their home, First Niagara Center, with the Sabres and sell out consistently. Opposing lacrosse players have frequently talked about how impressed they are with Buffalo’s fanbase; in a league where a team considers a large crowd a sparse 5000, the Bandits fill their building with 18,000 screaming psychos every game. One of the team’s newer players told The Buffalo News that it’s the kind of atmosphere professional lacrosse players dream of. Buffalo is known in the NHL as the top hockey-watching region in the United States. The city has embraced quirky niche sports ignored by large swaths of the country. (Yes, hockey counts. It’s too unpopular south of the dixie line.)

Buffalo as an NFL market makes the least amount of sense possible, and the league knows it. The city’s fallen socioeconomic status has destroyed the team’s future. The city itself can turn into an important place again, but it will do so without the help of the Bills. Looking to the future can often mean cutting off a link to the past because without that link, there’s nothing holding one back. The Bills are our link to the past, and they’re holding Buffalo back. It’s wise to begin detachment now so it doesn’t seem impossible later, and those who will miss the Bills most can take satisfaction in the fact that they’ll definitely fail in Toronto and will most likely fail in Los Angeles before they find a home that loves them in San Antonio. In the meantime, we can all decide which directions our loyalties will shift in. I personally have the New York Giants ready and waiting for the call-up to fill the Bills’ void. Although next season, I am hoping the Bills manage to pull themselves together and make an improbable run to the Super Bowl, because it would be a hell of a way for my fandom to end.

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About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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