SPECIAL REPORT: Inside the NHL’s central video-review operation. Can it work in the NFL? With tweaks, it sure can

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NHL executives Mike Murphy and Colin Campbell (at the “console”) sit on the Bridge in the Situation Room in Toronto, looking up at the wall of TVs as three games play simultaneously on April 9.

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The NHL calls it the Situation Room. Any sports fan with a pulse would call it the Ultimate Man Cave.

The league’s centralized video replay room, located on the 10th floor of the office tower attached to the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto, would be one helluva place to hold a Super Bowl party. Or any TV-watching party.

I spent an evening there in early April. Like all visitors, I came away mightily impressed by 1) the conception and execution of the operation, 2) its real-time technology, and 3) the speed of decision-making enabled by 1) and 2).

For these reasons, this system is the envy — and, indeed, the model — of the pro sports world.

And we mean world. In addition to the NFL, Major League Baseball and NBA, officials from even an Aussie rugby league flew halfway around the globe to check it out.

In early December, a day after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced the league was looking at potentially moving to a centralized video review operation, I broke the news that Jay Reid of the NFL’s officiating department had personally checked out the NHL’s Situation Room on Nov. 30.

In late March the NFL did indeed take its first step toward a central video review operation, when owners at the league’s annual meeting passed a new rule allowing members of the NFL officiating department at the league’s New York City headquarters to consult live with referees as they review plays under the hood.

I asked the NHL if I could spend a night in its Situation Room, to learn how the operation works, and to see how much of it might extrapolate to the NFL.

The NHL kindly allowed me to do so during the last week of the 2013-14 regular season. I visited on Wednesday, April 9, an average weeknight with five games on the docket. I picked the brains of the two top NHL executives in charge on this evening — executive vice-president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, and senior vice-president of hockey operations Mike Murphy (below).

NHLUsually it’s “Murph” who’s in charge in the Situation Room — six days a week during the season. Only two other men hold the same power as Campbell and Murphy to render verdicts on NHL video reviews over the entire six-month, 1,230-game regular season: Kris King, vice-president of hockey operations; and Rod Pasma, senior director of hockey operations.

Two other NHL executives involved in the direction and evolution of the operation include Stephen Walkom, an NHL senior vice-president and director of officiating, and Kay Whitmore, director of hockey operations and goaltender equipment.

The conclusion I reached is that much of the NHL’s centralized video replay system can, and should, migrate to the NFL. As soon as possible.

As I explain how the NHL’s system works, you’ll see why.

 

The wall of TVs

The Situation Room is not big: 20-by-40 feet. One of the walls running length-wise features a massive visual assault: high-def TV screens, butted and stacked, stretching 30 feet wide and nearly four feet deep. Man Cave heaven.

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The centre projector screen (which appears ghostly, above, as captured by my Canon camera) alone measures nearly seven feet wide by almost four feet deep. It can be quartered to show four different video feeds, and each of those can be quartered again. So up to 16 different sources on this screen alone.

Flanking it on each side are six 46-inch, high-def screens — arranged three across, two deep. Any of those 12 screens can be quartered as well.

On the busiest nights, when as many as 10 games might be going on simultaneously, the TV wall can show different broadcast feeds of the same game, if desired (e.g., TSN and NBC Sports Network), and for all games.

Conversely, on nights with fewer games, the inside four of the six 46-inch screens on either side can serve as a single larger screen, displaying one game feed, as happened on the night I visited. (See top photo.)

The NHL’s own in-net and over-net cameras at each arena can also be displayed. More on those later.

Atop the entire length of the TV wall is a horizontal, visual representation of the NHL standings, featuring team logos and digital point totals for teams still alive in the playoff hunt. That was the only thing that seemed out of place, or unnecessary, because obviously it does not matter to the folks in this room which team sits where in the standings, nor how much or little any one game matters.

Here’s my video pan of “the big board”:

The Bridge

This is the raised platform bisecting the room lengthwise, where those running that night’s operation work. They sit at a long-stretching computer desk as they look up at the wall of TVs. The communication console on the desk is an arm’s reach away. Here’s a video clip:


 

The console

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With the flip of a toggle switch, an exec-in-charge can communicate directly with the video replay judge at any of the NHL’s 30 arenas. When the head referee dons his headset at the penalty box, he’s instantly patched in and can join the conversation too. Prior to each game, the trio test their devices.

 

The red strobes

Experience taught the NHL that not only in the Situation Room but  especially for the on-site video replay judge, an audio alert — i.e., a ringing phone — to raise the other party cannot always be heard. Especially if the home team just scored and the Bridge wants to inform the video replay judge on site that the goal is under review.

Thus, when either side initiates a communication, a red strobe flashes. In the Situation Room, multiple overhead strobes flash. There’s no mistaking it.

Those on the Bridge know which arena is calling by the flashing light on the console above that arena’s toggle switch.

“Yes, Calgary, go ahead,” Murphy said into the mic on the night I was there, when the Flames’ video replay judge called to check in before the game.

 

A cool place

Not just by hip standards, but also thanks to air conditioning and air filtration. The temperature in that small room would soar if it wasn’t well ventilated and air-conditioned.

 

The work stations

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The Bridge separates two room-long rows of hi-tech computer work stations. On any given day or night, the allocation is simple: one work station per game, commanded by one “technician.” (That’s Sean Ellis, the NHL’s senior manager of video operations, above.)

At each technician’s station sit four 24-inch wide, high-def computer screens. If we number them 1-4, left to right, then number 1 shows a satellite feed of the game (e.g., Sportsnet).

Numbers 2 and 3 show real-time fiber-optic feeds from different host broadcasters (e.g, Sportsnet and NBC Sports Network), which are anywhere from five to 15 seconds faster than the satellite feed. Seriously, who knew satellite feeds were so delayed?

Not all games are broadcast by more than one network. Those that are offer different views, as not all cameras are shared between broadcasters. Each broadcaster uses anywhere from 12 to 15 cameras to capture a game’s action. One broadcaster might show a crucial replay that another does not have.

 

Screen 4: crux of the system

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Screen number 4 at each work station is by far the most important.

It is quartered to show four visual feeds. At top left: the same fiber-optic broadcast feed as screen number 2. At top right: the same fiber-optic broadcast feed as screen number 3.

NHLAt lower left and lower right, a choice of either the NHL’s own in-net cameras in each goal, or the NHL’s own above-net cameras (precisely positioned in the rafters to show a sliver of white ice between the front of the goal line and the crossbar overhead). Superimposed on both lower-quarter feeds is the exact time left in the current period.

NHLNow here’s the crux. All eight streams of visual information on screen 4 (including the two NHL camera views not selected) are interlaced by a New York City company, to put them in exact synchronicity. The instant the puck crosses the line in one feed will be the same instant in all the others, with the precise time displayed at lower left and right.

What’s more, much like your digital cable box’s recording device at home — a DVR in the U.S., or PVR in Canada — the synchronized streams are instantly rewindable at any time, while the action you’re missing continues to record seamlessly.

So, when a potentially contentious goal is scored, that game’s technician — who has been watching live — will rewind the action on screen 4 a moment later and rewatch the action, frame by frame if necessary, from the different visual feeds.

He often can confirm a goal (or non-goal, for that matter) within seconds — before the video replay judge at the arena calls the Situation Room, and sometimes even before anyone on the Bridge can ask.

“Hey, Murph — goal in Detroit. It’s good,” that game’s technician shouted, not even five seconds after it was scored.

If the goal appears at all contentious, the executive on the Bridge informs that arena’s video replay judge to suspend play.

In the days before fiber-optic technology, when a satellite feed might have been as much as 15 seconds behind real life, the puck might already have been dropped again by the time the decision at headquarters could be made to hold on a minute.

Or, more likely, the Bridge would have held up play while they looked at replays a while longer.

Here’s a video clip of screen 4:

Takeaways

The NHL’s Situation Room just completed its third season of effective operation. While the NHL’s own net cams and overhead cams earn a big assist in making correct calls, the cutting-edge, “real-time” fiber-optic technology is what enables this centralized video review system to work.

“Before, our reviews could take as long as six or seven minutes,” Murphy said. “Now, at the most, no more than two or two-and-a-half minutes. Usually much faster.”

What’s more, the real-time technology actually has reduced the number of official reviews — and significantly, Murphy said.

This past season the Situation Room officially reviewed 343 plays — mostly to verify goals (for kick-ins, high-stick usage or to see if the puck really crossed the line), but also for time-clock checks. That’s about 100 reviews fewer than before the Situation Room opened in 2011-12.

The greatest benefit to the NHL’s central video operation is consistency, Murphy said. Decision-making for every game now is in the hands of only four men, who have developed precise criteria for what constitutes, say, a kicked-in goal and what does not — a ruling as difficult to discern for the layman as any of the most contentious in the NFL.

Lastly, technology enables and time allows for each game technician to flag potentially controversial calls or hits in his postgame report. If egregious, the technician crops video snippets of the play in question and sends them moments after the occurrence to top NHL executives.

 

Could it work in the NFL?

It sure could. And with only a few more tweaks.

Sun Media has learned that the league is already taking the biggest step in that direction. The NFL will incorporate the same real-time fiber-optic technology as the NHL’s this coming season at its version of the Situation Room in New York City.

This will enable the NFL’s vice-president of officiating, Dean Blandino, and his team to watch games in virtual real time, just as their NHL counterparts do in Toronto.

But what about the much greater concentration of reviews likely in the NFL on any given Sunday? There are significantly more plays reviewed per game in the NFL — 1.65, compared to 0.28 in the NHL.

Indeed, in raw numbers there were 423 plays reviewed in 256 NFL games in 2013, compared to 343 game-stopping plays reviewed in 1,230 NHL games in 2013-14. (The NHL reviewed another 400 or so plays that were so quickly and decisively decided as to not require a stoppage of play.)

But as in the NHL, or any league, only one play can be reviewed at a time in any game. Thus, you still require only one technician at one work station for each game even in the NFL.

Bottle-necking on the NFL’s Bridge would be the potential issue. More decision-makers need to be on hand, empowered to render replay verdicts.

How many more? On the NHL’s busiest nights, when up to 10 games can be played simultaneously, only three executive decision-makers are on hand. The NFL, which can have up to 12 games playing concurrently early on Sunday afternoons, would need perhaps as many as eight, to prevent queuing up of reviews.

Likely the biggest difference between the two leagues is that unlike in the NHL, whose area of playing-surface focus for reviews is small — almost always limited to the goal crease and a bit outside — reviewable plays in the NFL can occur anywhere on a playing field, meaning an area 120 yards long by 53 1/3 yards wide.

Even if the NFL were to install cameras at every stadium aimed precisely along the goal lines, end lines and sidelines — as per a proposed rule that got tabled at last month’s annual meeting — only domed stadiums could mount them directly overhead, a la the NHL. And at those venues you’d have to install dozens of such cameras, incrementally along all those lines, to reap the same benefits the NHL gets from its directly-overhead net cams.

But would they be as effective as the NHL’s? Probably not. For example, an overhead camera might not provide any better angle on a goal-line quarterback sneak than traditional sideline views do — simply because of the pileup of so many bodies.

And the NFL does not have those cameras now. Refs in 2013 overturned 43% of calls they reviewed upon seeing incontrovertible video evidence from existing TV camera angles. So overhead views would be nice but aren’t crucial for the NFL.

The biggest obstacle preventing the NFL from moving to a fully centralized video-review operation like the NHL’s, wherein executives at HQ decide reviews, is the entrenched mindset both in New York and in officiating circles that the on-field referee must ultimately decide replay reviews, not anyone back at headquarters.

The NHL got past that thinking and isn’t regretting the decision one bit, Murphy said.

“In the end, it’s all about getting the calls correct,” he said. “That’s what we want, that’s what the officials want, that’s what the teams want, and that’s what the fans want.”

 

 

Bon Jovi remains ‘passionate’ about becoming NFL owner, and source says he remains part of Toronto group expected to bid for Buffalo Bills

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Jon Bon Jovi indeed wants to become an NFL owner, and it’s true he’s part a Toronto group expected to bid for the Buffalo Bills, Sun Media has learned.

On Thursday, the personal publicist for Jon Bon Jovi confirmed that the Livin’ on a Prayer singer is a player.

“Jon remains passionate in his pursuit of an NFL franchise,” publicist Ken Sunshine told Sun Media via e-mail.

Sunshine would not elaborate, nor comment on reports linking Bon Jovi to any group bidding on the Bills, based in Toronto or elsewhere.

But a Toronto source in the position to know, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Sun Media that reports from last November, echoed Thursday morning by Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei, remain accurate. That Bon Jovi is the face of a Toronto-based group intent on obtaining an NFL franchise, via relocation, and expected to bid for the Bills.

Bon Jovi hails from New Jersey.

With a metropolitan population of more than six million, Toronto is North America’s second largest market without an NFL team, after Los Angeles.

The source said the top executive of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, chairman Larry Tanenbaum, remains in league with Bon Jovi.

MLSEMLSE is the Toronto sports powerhouse that owns that city’s NHL and NBA teams (Maple Leafs and Raptors) and the arena they play in (Air Canada Centre), as well as the city’s MLS team (Toronto FC) and AHL team (Marlies).

Tim Leiweke, CEO of MLSE, told the Toronto Star last November — after an initial report from CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora — that Bon Jovi was part of a Toronto bid group seeking an NFL team, with MLSE’s backing.

“Jon and I are very good friends,” Leiweke told the Star. “We talk weekly about his NFL ambitions. And so we’re actively engaged, but I think it’s still a work in progress.”

Founding Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. was still alive at that time. But Wilson died two weeks ago, and the Bills last week confirmed the long-held belief that Wilson’s survivors will sell the team.

Sunshine, Bon Jovi’s publicist, last November told Associated Press’ sports correspondent in Buffalo, John Wawrow, that his client was not pursuing the Bills at that time.

“The Bills are not for sale, and (Bon Jovi) has too much respect for Mr. Wilson to engage in any discussions of buying the team,” Sunshine told Wawrow.

Bon Jovi has “a day job that’s doing very well,” Sunshine said, in regard to the Hall of Fame rock band that bears his client’s surname.

“It’s preposterous to say he’s had any discussions with the Bills and Erie County.”

Upon being reached by Sun Media at that time, Sunshine said he was quoted accurately by Wawrow and would not expand on his comments, meant as anti-inflammatory to counter wild public speculation about future Bills ownership while Wilson remained alive.

Bon Jovi, 52, long has been “consumed,” as La Canfora phrased it last November, with becoming an NFL owner. Or at least part owner.

He is a friend not only of two of the NFL’s most influential owners — New England’s Robert Kraft and Dallas’ Jerry Jones — but also of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a native of Western New York.

The finances of Bon Jovi’s bid group bears attention.

The rocker’s personal net worth is about $300 million, according to Forbes.com.

By NFL rules, the controlling-stake threshold for NFL ownership is 30%. So if the Bills price tag winds up in the neighbourhood of $1 billion, the singer presumably would have to sell almost everything he owns to come up that kind of cash. Thus, while Bon Jovi might become the frontman of this Toronto bid group, unless Forbes is mistaken about his net worth it’s hard to see how he could become controlling owner.

An important point: no potential NFL owner or ownership group may borrow more than $200 million to complete the sales transaction. So if the price tag winds up at a billion bucks, a bid group has to plunk down $800 million in cash.

Tanenbaum’s net worth in November was listed at $1.18 billion by Canadian Business magazine. Presumably he would have the cash to be principal owner, but that intention is not known. In any event, other deep-pocketed Canadians would need to contribute to the bid group, or perhaps even lead it.

Previous reports said a contributor might be Edward Rogers III, son of the late Ted Rogers, founder of the Rogers Communications cable, telecommunications, media and sports empire. Canadian Business pegs the net worth of the “Rogers family” at $7.6 billion.

MLSE or Rogers Communications cannot buy the Bills, as NFL rules prohibit corporate ownership.

The Bills’ current lease, as I reported two weeks ago, virtually prevents any new owner from relocating the team through 2022, with the exception of a brief window in 2020 that carries a $28.4-million penalty.

The still-reported $400-million “relocation penalty” to get out of the lease before that window (or after the window, through the 2022 season) is a misnomer.

To use a prison analogy, the new owner cannot merely pay $400 million in bail and bolt Buffalo. That huge sum of money would only come into play if the new owner busts out of jail and somehow gets his lawyers to convince a judge that the breakout was legal. In that unlikely event, to complete the analogy the lease calls for the freed owner(s) to pay $400 million as a penalty for such an incredulous court victory — a last-ditch “liquidated damages” clause, in legal parlance.

So the Bills aren’t going anywhere until at least 2020.

RogersBut where would the “Toronto Bills” even play? The Rogers Centre would not suffice. Its capacity, now under 50,000, is too small to be a team’s primary stadium, per NFL constitution and bylaws. Barring a massive overhaul of the downtown dome, a new stadium would have to be built.

As there would be little likelihood of any municipal, provincial or federal financing to help pay for a new stadium, the Toronto Bills presumably would pay for construction mostly with seat-licence fees. And you thought Bills-in-Toronto tickets cost a lot.

As for the “Bills-in-Toronto” series, it’s on hold for 2014, after six years of diminishing interest and benefit to all parties involved: the Bills, Rogers Media Inc., the Rogers Centre, Bills fans, the Bills team itself and NFL fans in Toronto.

Whether the Bills-in-Toronto series can morph into the Bills-in-Toronto franchise at some point early next decade remains to be seen.

At this point, perhaps not even the Wilson family nor NFL higher-ups knows if Bon Jovi’s bid group’s chances of buying the Bills are worse than, equal to or better than a prayer.

 

Bills could be sold as early as summer, source says — plus 9 other insights into club’s sale

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Don’t be surprised if the NFL already has pre-vetted potential buyers of the Buffalo Bills and the team is sold as early as this summer, a prominent sports-franchise consultant told Sun Media.

That’s one of many insights regarding the future of the Bills franchise shared by this expert adviser on team acquisitions and stadium development, who is based on the Atlantic Seaboard.

He spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I would assume that the NFL already is pre-vetting candidates that are going to bid. You have to go with that assumption,” the consultant said this week in a pair of wide-ranging interviews. “The NFL did that with the Cleveland Browns sale (in 2012). They were pre-vetting.

“That sale was lightning quick, and the reason why is the league had already pre-approved Jimmy Haslam. That team had gone up to the league and said, ‘We want to sell,’ and the league said, ‘You know what? We have a guy for you. He’s already been approved by the NFL.’”

The same thing happened in late 2011 when billionaire Shad Khan agreed to terms to buy the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“Remember, Khan had tried to buy the St. Louis Rams (in 2010),” the consultant said. “So the NFL knew who he was. When he didn’t get the Rams, they said to him, ‘Would you still be available if another team becomes available?’ He said yes. And Jacksonville became available.”

Ralph Wilson, the club’s founding owner since 1959, died last week at age 95. On Thursday the club announced that his widow, Mary Wilson, will act as controlling owner until the club’s sale is approved by NFL owners.

So many questions are begging.

How soon will the club go on the market? Will we know when that happens? How fast or slow might the sale process go? Will it all be done quietly? Would a drawn-out auction necessarily devolve into an ugly public spectacle?

How much does the fact the team has no long-term stadium solution in Buffalo factor into the sale?

And what of Toronto and Los Angeles, universally seen as the likeliest relocation destinations next decade, should the next owner want to go that route.

The consultant shed expert light on these and other areas:

 

1. A quick sale?

“I’ve read people say that this is going to take a long time,” the consultant said. “And it could take a season or longer. Well, maybe. But it’s funny how things work. There’s nothing that says it has to take that long. Legally there’s no reason you can’t sell it quickly.

“Someone could walk up and say, ‘Look, I’m going to give you a billion dollars, let’s get a deal done.’ The league may already have some people who have been pre-approved. My bet is people already have gone to the NFL and asked for pre-approval.”

If that is what has happened, then a fast sale is possible. Tim Graham of the Buffalo News on Thursday cited a team source in reporting a sale could occur as early as October.

Sun Media’s source said it could happen months earlier.

“I don’t know that they’re prepared to move this fast, but it is completely possible this team could be sold before the regular season.

“Then again, it could go 18 months.”

 

2. A long sale?

Also possible, for any number of reasons, the source said.

The estate might need time to prepare for the sale. Or there might be tax benefits in waiting. Or the team might choose to hold off until after the coming season, just to avoid distractions.

Or the Wilson family might simply prefer an auction, to maximize the sale price. That process takes time. And it can come with a nasty side-effect.

Exhibit A: what happened after the 1997 death of Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.

“Everyone thought his son would get the team, and he didn’t,” the consultant said. “It was the last time we had sort of an estate-sale/auction process. It wasn’t predetermined who would own the team.

“It went on for months. It was a soap opera. It played out in the papers every day. ‘This is what Jack Kent Cooke’s son is doing, this is what Daniel Snyder is doing …’ In the end Snyder won it. That was a more public process than the NFL likes.”

No kidding. The league probably would prefer that the sale occur both relatively quickly and, most of all, discreetly. In an auction, the former is practically impossible; the latter, far less likely.

BILLS“In Buffalo’s case, you have an auction potentially,” the source said. “Without knowing the estate plans, and what’s required … I can very much see an auction process, more similar to what we saw in Washington. Which means eventually this becomes public, and everything that comes with that.”

In the event the estate nominally accepts a bid but the NFL rejects it, the soap-opera needle would red-line. All parties would look bad, including the league.

That’s why the consultant believes the league strongly prefers to pre-approve all potential bidders.

“When I do deals in other leagues, I don’t necessarily have pre-approvals. Most deals are conditional upon league approval.

“So I think a safe assumption about what the NFL is doing here — based on what we saw with the Cleveland and Jacksonville sales, and based on all the uncertainty with potential relocation of the Bills — is they don’t necessarily want a public discussion about which group might or might not want to move the franchise eventually.

“Nobody wants that on the front pages. So what I think you’ll have is pre-approvals, then an auction. How public the auction is, is up to the seller. The Bills in theory could make the auction very public. I don’t expect that they will.

“But if they want to create an auction process, and try to create a frenzy over the price, they can do that.”

 

 

3. How many bidders?

If it’s an open auction, there could be many bidders.

“I think there will be a line of people interested,” the consultant said. “It could bubble up from investment bankers’ circles or lawyers.

“In recent years I’ve been called by probably half a dozen people interested in buying the Bills. Whether or not they have the money to do the deal, I don’t know. But people have called.”

 

 

4. Expect a low-key sale

The Bills never have been an open-window operation. They don’t even announce lengths of new player contracts.

Expect that theme to continue. Especially in light of the following.

“Most everyone will try to keep details of this sale as quiet as possible, because noise does not help the process,” the consultant said. “My preference always is to keep it more low key, because it makes the sale process a little bit smoother.

“You’ll start seeing smoke signals when the sale gets going. Things like this are difficult to keep quiet. Even the Cleveland sale didn’t have as many smoke signals as usual, but details began to come out nonetheless.”

 

 

5. Then again …

The Bills can only keep their own business quiet. They cannot do anything about the following.

“Some bidders like noise,” the source said. “They think, ‘You know what? Let’s get out there and tell everybody we’ve got our money in place, we’re going to do a deal — this is what we’re offering. And let’s see if we can scare other buyers away.’

“There are a lot of ways to play it. That’s one I’ve seen.”

Another source told me several days ago that whichever potential bidder puts his or her name out in public first, and too soon after Wilson’s death, is almost certain to not get the team.

Fittingly, Donald Trump became that person on Tuesday.

 

 

6. Whose bid wins?

The highest bidder. Just as you’d intuitively expect.

“The team is going to sell for top dollar — whatever they can sell it for,” the consultant said. “There’s a legal reason. It’s likely the fiduciary duty of whoever is administering the sale to get the best deal possible.

“The only exception would be if there’s something in Mr. Wilson’s will — and I’ve never seen this — that insists the seller be local, or commit to keep the team in the Buffalo area. Something like that.”

Three-quarters of NFL owners (at least 24 of 32) must approve the winning bid. Remember, it’s their club. They pick their new members.

 

 

7. The stadium problem

Forty-one-year-old Ralph Wilson Stadium is undergoing a $130-million facelift this year. Erie County owns the aging edifice. The Bills are contractually bound to play in it through 2022, save for a one-time exit possibility after the 2019 season, for $28.4 million.

A “New Stadium Working Group” — comprising reps from the county, State of New York and the Bills — met for the first time on Tuesday to begin the up-to- two-year process of figuring out whether the Ralph can be “substantially” overhauled to serve as the Bills’ home for decades to come, or a new stadium needs to be built — and if the latter, where?

The uncertainty will play a role in the sale, the source said.

“At some point if you’re a potential bidder you ask, What’s your risk allocation? If you buy a team for $800-$900 million, or even $1 billion, what’s my next expenditure?

“Eventually you know you have to do something here, stadium-wise. Whether you’re putting $300-$500 million into the Ralph, or helping to build a new billion-dollar stadium, money is going to have to be spent.”

And while the county and state are paying for all but approximately $35 million of the current renos, the consultant said, “I don’t know that I’d expect they’d get a similar-percentage investment from the county and state on a new building.

“Some buyers would like to know those details, now, so they know what risk they’re assuming. Others would say, ‘Screw it, we’ll figure it out later.’”

 

8. Buffalo/Niagara, Toronto or LA?

It’s just far too early to know where the Bills might wind up.

And here’s another thing. Toronto and Los Angeles don’t have long-term stadium options in place either.

Probably the new owner would have to shell out a lot more of his or her money to build a viable stadium in either of those potential relocations. Both of those cities, as well as their state/provincial governments, are averse to publicly funding sport pantheons — well, unless used for Olympic or Pan-Am Games.

And remember, you have to account for likely NFL relocation fees.

Stadium aside, there is no guarantee that relocating to either LA or Toronto automatically would be more lucrative.

“Yeah, there are challenges in Buffalo,” the consultant said. “But you have time to learn the market before you ever have to make that location decision. Relocation is not a slam dunk. You can go somewhere else and it might not be as good.

“It could be a worse situation. And it’s not as though there aren’t loyal fans in Buffalo.”

 

9. Conflicting agendas

In an interesting twist, the consultant pointed out that it’s likely there are different agendas for committee members.

For years, Bills CFO Jeff Littman was Wilson’s most trusted adviser and financial point man in all of his business endeavours. If he indeed winds up running the club’s sale for the estate, as is presumed, it would benefit the sale if the committee proceeded as slowly as possible.

That’s because saddling the next owner with any decision that might long impact the franchise might depress the sale price. For instance, if the committee proposes the next stadium be built in Erie County and ties public funding to that location. Maybe the owner would want to build the stadium in Niagara Falls.

“If you’re involved in the sale process, you want more flexibility, not less,” the source said.

 

 

10. The new owner’s bind, re staying vs. going

Here’s the reality for any ownership group intent on keeping the team in the Buffalo area, and making that intention public.

It will cost more money to do so. Big money.

“There’s no way in the world I would do that even if that’s my intention,” the consultant said, “because you hurt your negotiating position on a new stadium.

“Now, the buyer can try to kill the story right off the top and come out in public and say, ‘We have no interest in moving. We love Buffalo.’ But privately I bet they can’t take that position.”

Why? Because then the new owner may damage his or her leverage with the county and state in trying to get those two governments to pony up as much as possible to build a new stadium, or to remodel the Ralph.

And here’s another thing, as a long-time Bills season ticket-holder pointed out to me.

While the new owner is prohibited by the stadium lease and non-relocation agreement from so much as even talking to any party privately or publicly about relocating the franchise, if 2020 (year of the opt-out) nears and there’s still no stadium plan in place, guess what?

“That’ll be the sign that the owner intends to move the team,” the season ticket-holder surmised. “And that’s when I cancel. And so will most other fans. The Ralph will be a ghost town on game days.”

All that fun — for a mere billion dollars or so.

“This is a great opportunity for someone,” the consultant said. “But, like any great opportunity, there are warts.”

 

New advisory group mulls long-term stadium answer for Bills in Buffalo: a ‘Taj Mahal’ or ‘substantial’ Ralph reno

Perhaps the next owner of the Buffalo Bills indeed will relocate the franchise to Toronto or Los Angeles next decade.

But after Tuesday, Buffalo has one thing those cities haven’t got: an advisory panel comprising Bills executives, prominent area business leaders and both local and state political heavyweights, all on the same page trying to conjure a long-term stadium solution for the NFL team in the Queen City.

As everyone in NFL circles wonders about the fate of the Bills franchise following the death last week of owner Ralph Wilson, this officially dubbed “New Stadium Working Group” met for the first time Tuesday afternoon at Bills headquarters in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Can 41-year-old Ralph Wilson Stadium — after its $130-million facelift this year — undergo a “substantial” renovation again some time next decade to viably serve the team and its famously hardcore fans for decades to come?

Or is the long-term answer instead a new “Taj Mahal,” a term Wilson himself once unflatteringly used to denounce modern, massive, bells-and-whistles adorned NFL stadiums? And if this option, where in Erie County should it be built?

Don’t hold your breath for answers.

Mark C. Poloncarz is the top elected official in Erie County, where Buffalo is located and which owns Ralph Wilson Stadium and leases it to the Bills. In a phone interview after Tuesday’s meeting, he urged patience.

“We know that this is not going to be a short process,” the County Executive said. “This could take a couple of years. We don’t want to jump ahead of ourselves. We want to make certain that the recommendations that we make are based on expert information.”

The advisory group merely will make recommendations to the three primary financial stakeholders in the future of the Bills in Buffalo — the team, the county and the state. (For video of the impromptu post-meeting news conference, click here.)

“There are a lot of people assuming, ‘Oh, this means there’s going to be a new stadium built,’ and as we’ve all said for some time now, no, that’s not necessarily the answer,” Poloncarz said.

“One of the things that we’ll be looking at is, Can you continue to use the current facility if updated and keep it viable? So we’re going to be looking at all of that. I don’t anticipate even that will be a short process.”

Poloncarz on Tuesday was named one of three co-chairs of the 20-person advisory group. Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon and Robert Duffy, Lt. Gov. of the State of New York, were the others.

The group’s formation has nothing to do with the death of Wilson, nor does even the timing of Tuesday’s first meeting.

A clause in the club’s 10-year lease extension at Ralph Wilson Stadium — signed early last year — called for the group’s formation within 30 days of substantial completion of stadium renovations, “or at such earlier time” as Erie County, the State and the Bills agreed.

Renovations at the Ralph are now 45% complete.

“People are assuming that we were rushing to hold this meeting because of Mr. Wilson’s passing,” Poloncarz said, “but we’ve had communications for weeks now on when this was going to be done.”

With the State of New York paying for the largest share of the current stadium renovations — $60 million, compared to $40 million from Erie County and $30 million from the Bills — it earned as many seats on the advisory group as the county and the team.

Early last month New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo named five members to his sub-committee, including Lt. Gov. Duffy and the mayors of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Cuomo named a sixth member on Monday, and has the right to name a seventh.

Poloncarz is one of seven members on Erie County’s sub-committee, which includes two other county officials plus four business leaders.

Bills sub-committee members include Brandon, two other team executives (CFO Jeff Littman and Mary Owen, executive VP of strategic planning), three business leaders and, perhaps most importantly, influential U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.

What happened at Tuesday’s first meeting?

“I’m not going to go into great detail,” Poloncarz said. “Sixteen of the 20 members were in attendance. It was a very productive meeting.

“There were a number of things we discussed. Most of that is private.”

The state, the county and the current leadership of the Bills all agree on the advisory group’s one and only goal.

“It’s to put in place what’s necessary to keep the Buffalo Bills here — not just for 10 years, but for 50 years and beyond,” Poloncarz said.

Whoever emerges as the new owner of the Bills, however, will have the biggest say in that.

As I reported last week, despite continuing reports that the team can relocate before 2020 by merely paying a $400-million penalty, the Bills are in fact effectively locked into remaining in Buffalo through the 2019 season. Before the 2020 season the team can pay a one-time $28.4-million opt-out fee to relocate, but otherwise would be locked in again until the end of the 2022 season.

Neither Toronto nor Los Angeles — the two North American destinations seen as the likeliest relocation destinations — nor even London, England, has a plan in place to build a permanent NFL-compliant stadium.

 

 

Group’s official task, per lease:

What is the Buffalo advisory group specifically charged with doing, per the 2013 stadium lease? Here is clause 10.9 in its entirety, legalese and all:

10.9 New Stadium Working Group. The purpose of the New Stadium Working Group shall be to explore, investigate, design, plan, permit, obtain approvals for, develop, perform studies related to, and perform due diligence and such other activities as the New Stadium Working Group deems to be necessary and/or desirable related to (i) the development and construction of a new stadium either on the Land or on another location in Erie County, or (ii) a substantial renovation of the Stadium. The members of the New Stadium Working Group shall commence meeting and performing the responsibilities of the New Stadium Working Group within thirty (30) days after Substantial Completion of the Project, as defined in the 2013 Construction Coordinating Agreement, or such earlier time as the County, the ECSC (Erie County Stadium Corporation), and the Bills may mutually agree. Any and all reports, memoranda and other information prepared by or on behalf of the New Stadium Working Group shall be provided simultaneously to the County, the ECSC, and the Bills within five (5) Business Days after the preparation or receipt of the same by the New Stadium Working Group. The New Stadium Working Group shall have the right to recommend to the ECSC, the County and the Bills disbursements from the New Stadium Fund to further the New Stadium Working Group’s mission and objectives. Provided that the ECSC and the County approve any such disbursement in writing, the ECSC shall make such disbursement in accordance with the New Stadium Working Group’s recommendations. All contracts and other agreements to be entered into by New Stadium Working Group, if any, shall require the prior written approval of the County and the ECSC.

 

All 20 advisory-group members

Here are the 20 members of the “New Stadium Working Group,” listed on their sub-committees:

 

The seven members on the Bills sub-committee:

*    Russell H. Brandon, Bills President and Chief Executive Officer (co-chair)

*    Louis P. Ciminelli, Chairman LPCiminelli, Inc.

*    Christopher H. Koch, CEO of New Era Cap Co., Inc.

*    Jordan Levy, Managing Partner of SoftBank Capital

*    Jeffrey C. Littmann, Bills Chief Financial Officer

*    Mary Owen, Bills Executive Vice President Strategic Planning

*    Charles E. Schumer, United States Senator

 

The seven members on the Erie County sub-committee:

*    Mark C. Poloncarz, County Executive, Erie County (co-chair)

*    Richard Tobe, Deputy County Executive, Erie County

*    Maria R. Whyte, Commissioner of Environment and Planning, Erie County

*    Kathleen Hochul, Vice President, M&T Bank Corporation

*    Michael Joseph, President, Clover Management, Inc.

*    Alphonso O’Neil-White, Retired President & CDO of HealthNow New York Inc.

*    Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, President, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo

 

The six members on the State of New York sub-committee:

*    Robert Duffy, Lt. Gov. (co-chair)

*    Byron W. Brown, Buffalo Mayor

*    Paul Dyster, Niagara Falls Mayor

*    Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, Buffalo Niagara Partnership CEO

*    Kenneth Adams, Empire State Development President

*    Gary L. Ginsberg, executive vice president of corporate marketing and communications for Time Warner (Buffalo native)

McGill OT kills it in drills for NFL scouts, lines up four visits

DuvernayTardif_proday1

(Photos courtesy of our QMI Agency sister paper, Le Journal de Montreal)

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The best thing about Laurent Duvernay-Tardif’s impressive pro day on Thursday?

He convinced himself of something he had just been hoping for.

“I think now I belong in the NFL,” the 23-year-old McGill University med student said in a telephone interview from Montreal, after exceeding most of his goals in an NFL scouting-combine style workout.

In front of talent evaluators from nine NFL and four CFL teams, Duvernay-Tardif killed it, as they say, in all three phases for an NFL-calibre offensive line draft prospect: power, agility and speed.

Measuring 6-foot-5 and weighing about a dozen pounds lighter than normal, at 298, Duvernay Tardif did the following indoors, all in rapid succession, as he was the only athlete auditioning:

*    bench-pressed 34 reps of 225 pounds. Only six of 50 offensive linemen benched more at the NFL scouting combine last month in Indianapolis;

*    twice had a vertical leap of 31.5 inches. Only two O-linemen at the combine leaped higher;

*    was mad he ran the three-cone ‘L’ drill in 7.3 seconds, even though no O-lineman at the combine ran it in under 7.3;

*    ran the 40-yard dash, depending on whose stop watch you gauged, in anywhere from 4.94 and 5.08 seconds. Only five OLs at the combine posted sub-5.0 official times in the 40;

*    leaped 9-feet-6 in the broad jump. Only Michigan’s Taylor Lewan — a likely Top 15 overall pick — jumped farther at the combine (9-feet-9);

*    Ran the short shuttle in 4.59 seconds. Only 10 OLs did it faster at the combine.

 

DuvernayTardif_proday2“I was super relaxed. It was just like another workout, and I was super happy at the end,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “Those are great numbers.”

So much so that they captured the interest of Gil Brandt, known as the “Godfather” of draft analysts, who wanted to know how each drill went.

“Yes, they’re good numbers,” Brandt said by phone.

Duvernay-Tardif proved he measures up athletically. His shortcomings, as he and football people well know, are his Canadian university football pedigree and his hampered development over the past three years, as a result of not having been able to practise more than once per week because of his demanding med-school studies.

Duvernay-Tardif said he spoke frankly afterward with reps from the New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals.

DuvernayTardif_proday3“What they were saying is that I’m a good athlete and I move super well for my weight,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “The big question mark for them is just the level of competition I played against.

“But I wanted them to know I’m coachable and they can mould me into the player they want, whether it’s a tackle or guard or centre.”

CFL scouts from Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary also attended. Duvernay-Tardif is the top-ranked Canadian prospect for May’s CFL draft.

“I think I had an impressive day, for sure,” he said. “There are still some steps, but I think I’m going in the right way.”

Among those next steps are taking official visits to NFL teams. And after having dinner with a Bills scout on Wednesday, Duvernay-Tardif has visits lined up in Miami, Arizona, Cleveland and Seattle.

More are sure to follow.

“Yeah, we’re going to send that pro-day tape to all 32 NFL teams,” he said.

“Teams are so honest with you. Up until now I never knew what teams were thinking about me. Now I know that from every measurable way, I belong.”

DuvernayTardif_proday