Niagara Gazette

Sports

October 9, 2011

Commish inspires Buffalo fans to keep Bill-lievin'

COMMENTARY

ORCHARD PARK — It was another glorious outing at Ralph Wilson Stadium, another entertaining affair right through to the dramatic conclusion, another validating victory for the home team. For the third time in four weeks, the weather was sublime and the game followed suit. The Buffalo Bills gave the “Dream Team” from Philadelphia a dose of Rust Belt reality, winning 31-24 to improve to 4-1. Bills fans could certainly get used to this, if they haven’t already.

And though the Bills play here just once over the course of the next seven weeks, there’s growing reason to believe — Bill-ieve, you could say — there will be more days like this for a good long while.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fielded questions from a select group of season ticket-holders Sunday morning. Several times he was asked about the fate of football in Buffalo should soon-to-be 93-year-old Ralph Wilson join Al Davis in the existential owners’ suite.

Laid back as his summer hideaway on Chautauqua Lake each time the subject was broached, Goodell assured Bills fans they shouldn’t worry much about that inevitable day.

“I hope Mr. Wilson is going to be around for a long time, and he’s been a great owner,” Goodell said. “He has what he thinks are the right steps for the team, and we will work with him and the team to fulfill his wishes and do what’s in the best interest of this community and the team. It’s being taken care of.”

A young boy asked Goodell if Buffalo would get a replacement team should the Bills relocate. Goodell took a moment to explain to him what a hypothetical question was, then declined to answer said question. But the native son again calmed fears that the NFL will one day vulture Wilson’s team and abandon Western New York for a more lucrative market. “I promise you,” he said, “I’ll do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

At that moment, Russ Brandon, the Bills’ chief operating officer, turned to the Orchard Park Bills player with an animated expression. Smiling and nodding to make the boy feel at ease, Brandon’s face also seemed to say, “We’ll be here to sell you season tickets when you’re old enough to afford them, kid.”

When reporters huddled around him after the fan forum, Goodell backtracked from his implication that Wilson has shared a succession plan with him. The commish said he could offer no assurances, but that he was confident the Bills would stay put if the community continues to do its part.

You don’t have to follow Chad Kelly’s Twitter to know there are several financiers committed to keeping the Bills in Buffalo if they are put up for sale. The insecurity has always been that some tycoon will out-bid other suitors, look toward a larger market to recoup his investment, and receive the NFL’s blessing because it would increase shared revenue for the other 31 teams. Goodell’s words should soothe those who think that way.

“I have every bit of confidence that small market teams are going to continue to be successful,” Goodell said. “As long as we continue to have the proper stadiums and proper fan support.”

Goodell made it clear that so long as Western New York has a viable venue, it will have an NFL franchise. He confirmed that the Bills are negotiating a long-term lease with Erie County, and indicated that the 38-year-old relic will be suitable so long as it’s properly renovated and filled to capacity.

“It’s a great stadium to watch a game,” Goodell said. “One of the reasons I picked this game to sit out in the stands is because I think it’s a great experience to be here with the Bills fans and the sight lines are great. Second, I think the Bills owner, the state, and the county has done a great job of continuing to make improvements to the stadium to keep it competitive. But you have to continue to do that.

“We’ve had success with old stadiums. Lambeau Field is an old stadium. Chicago’s an old stadium (that) had a significant renovation, going back, so you have to continually improve facilities to keep them competitive with what’s going on in other markets. But again, it has to be done with an eye towards that market. There are certain things that may not be necessary or desired by the fans here in Western New York that are very popular in other markets. The stadium has to fit the community and the community has to have input in that, which they have.”

If you think we can secure the Bills future here by constructing some elaborate structure in downtown Buffalo or Niagara Falls, think again. The existing debt-free stadium and sweetheart deal with local government to pay for upgrades and maintenance will be very attractive to potential buyers. When it becomes necessary to invest close to a billion dollars in a new building, moving out of town becomes more enticing.

The doomsday scenario for Buffalo Bills fans won’t be triggered by the demise of Ralph Wilson, but rather the stadium that bears his name.

Contact sports editor Jonah Bronstein at jonah.bronstein@niagara-gazette.com.

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