Thursday, February 07, 2008

Going, going ...

Some months ago, when the Buffalo Bills first announced a plan to play games in Toronto, a friend of mine who is a huge football fan said to me, "The first step, right?"

I replied, "Yes."

To fill in the blanks, he meant the first step for the Bills to move somewhere -- maybe Toronto, maybe not.

As Buffalo's economy has stagnated (I'm not sure if it is shrinking in absolute terms, only relative to other cities in North America), it's easy to guess that it will be more and more difficult to keep an NFL team here. Owner Ralph Wilson has been complaining about the economy here for years, and he did it again this week during a news conference in Toronto.

Now Wilson deserves a little credit here. He could have easily sold the team at any point in the last several years, and made a huge profit. How much do you think a team would be worth in the Los Angeles market right now, especially if a new stadium were promised to new owners as part of the deal? I would guess something close to a billion dollars. Wilson stayed put instead.

The Bills' ticket prices are pretty low, and they have trouble finding many corporations who are willing to pay ridiculous numbers for suites and club seating. Buffalo's revenue streams don't match the ones in Dallas or New York. This is a comment on the economics in Buffalo; it also may be a comment on the intelligence of Western New Yorkers who have trouble justifying thousands of dollars a year for eight (let's not even start with preseason games) NFL games.

But here's the catch. Wouldn't you love to see a full economic disclosure by an NFL team? Or two?

The Bills have their entire football payroll covered, more or less, by television payments. It's something around $100 million, I believe. That means everything else taken in can go toward the rest of their expenses. The Bills have been selling games out pretty regularly in the last decade despite missing the playoffs for the past several years. Are they losing money, or not making enough for their partners?

Even with a labor deal that doesn't work overly well for the small-market teams, it's easy to wonder where the money is going. Come to think of it, it's easy to wonder how the Green Bay Packers are making ends meet -- and they are a national institution.

Certainly, other teams can charge more for tickets and suites, and that means more money in the system and more money for the salary cap. That will make it tougher and tougher for the Bills to keep up. But again, it's tough to know what the timetable from going from black to red ink might be.

The Bills' lease was only signed for 15 years, and it has a steadily decreasing penalty for early departure -- not the best of deals from the population's standpoint. It's easy to be pessimistic that the team will ever sign another one.