ALBANY and CORTLAND, N.Y. — Just days before prospective Buffalo Bills owners must submit their first, non-binding bids, conflicting information abounds.
It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s deliberate misinformation.
Most of it centres on the Toronto bid group of rocker Jon Bon Jovi, MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum and the Rogers family.
Last Saturday I reported that the group intends to inform the trust overseeing the sale of the NFL team that it is committed to keeping the NFL franchise in Western New York.
That’s a complete 180 from what had been the case: that the group, if successful, absolutely intended to relocate the team to Toronto at first opportunity.
And such opportunity would not come until 2020 or 2023, because of the team’s restrict lease and non-relocation agreement (NRA) at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Those legal agreements would prevent any prospective Toronto-bound team from so much as discussing construction of a new stadium before 2020.
Five vital questions are being asked repeatedly about the Toronto group. Near as I can tell from sifted information provided by a wide range of sources on both sides of the border, here’s what I can share in an attempt to answer these questions:
1. ARE THEY LYING?
No one but the principals in the trio know for sure. Anyone else who claims to know is guessing or presuming or lying.
Almost nobody in Western New York — or Toronto, for that matter — believes that the Toronto group is in earnest in its intention to keep the club in Buffalo. Who can blame them?
Every instinctive fibre in your being screams at you that they must want to relocate to Toronto. It’s a Toronto group! Nothing else makes sense.
Multiple informed sources close to the sale process on both sides of the Niagara River strongly doubt the group’s sincerity. Most even laugh when the subject is first broached.
That said, some sources believe if the Toronto group wins the bid for the Bills, a tsunami of momentum might all but compel the three parties to put their money where their mouths are and commit to a new long-term stadium deal long before 2020, either at a further modernized Ralph Wilson Stadium, or wherever all sides eventually agree to build a replacement.
The thinking by these folks is that for five years the Toronto trio could not possibly just keep putting off the county and the state — and all those dyed-in-their-winter-wool Bills fans.
Conversely, there are informed sources who insist it would be easy to do just that. That five years would go by fast. Very fast. And if deception is the trio’s intention, then their game plan would surely go like this:
Continually call meetings with Erie County and the State of New York to talk about a new stadium. Do it often, do it enthusiastically. And dismiss all ideas of applying another coat of lipstick to the Ralph again. New stadium only, please.
But never agree to anything. Ever. Say that you like this plan or that plan and that, geez, we’re close — but always send them back to do more research. Before you know it, the five (or eight) years are up.
The major problem with that scenario, as we have been writing emphatically since late April, is that everyone by then will have long since sussed out what’s going on.
The majority of Bills fans already believe they have.
Understand that Western New Yorkers are acutely following every miniscule development in this sale saga. They’ve scaled the hilltops far and wide, heads tilted up, with nostrils wide open as they scan the winds for so much as the faintest whiff of relocation intention on the part of the Toronto group.
Such as what they smelled yesterday.
2. DID THE TORONTO TRIO REALLY COMMISSION A TORONTO-STADIUM FEASIBIILTY STUDY?
Thursday’s big news out of Buffalo came from a friend and colleague on this beat whom I admire and greatly respect: John Wawrow, the Buffalo sports correspondent for the Associated Press. His scoop stated the Toronto trio “conducted a feasibility study into buying the NFL franchise and building a stadium in Toronto.”
AP also reported that the study identified two Toronto sites: one on the waterfront, and the other not in Toronto but, rather, in adjacent Mississauga.
The story furthermore quoted the Toronto group’s stadium consultant, Andy Bergmann of Toronto-based Wessex Capital Partners, denying he has conducted any feasibility study about any potential stadium site on either side of the border.
The most important information was this: that the feasibility study “was commissioned 18 months ago.”
Here’s what I know.
The study was commissioned by Edward Rogers, alone, sources say. Not Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum, whose goal to buy an NFL team together dates back at least two years, I was surprised to learn.
The Rogers family — led by Edward Rogers III, deputy chairman of his family’s Canadian telecom empire — joined Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum in their Bills bid group only a couple of weeks ago, after deciding not to go it alone in a second Toronto bid group.
Two sources say that about a year-and-a-half ago, perhaps as long as two years ago, Edward Rogers privately commissioned a study to determine the feasibility of the NFL in Toronto, and of potential new stadium sites.
Why? Because several years ago, sources say, the belief was that the Rogers Centre — Toronto’s waterfront domed stadium previously known as SkyDome — could merely be upgraded to serve as a future NFL team’s home. Apparently the NFL dissuaded Rogers honchos of this idea.
Ergo the feasibility study. Rogers commissioned it months before the Bills’ current 10-year lease extension and NRA were even ratified by the NFL in March 2013, and at least a year before founding Bills owner Ralph Wilson died in March.
And, as stated, Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum had nothing to do with it.
In an interview late Thursday night, Bergmann confirmed that Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum hired him as their stadium consultant “about two years ago.”
Bergmann designed “very generic” stadium options for them, not specific to any site. In addition he said he merely provided “costs and impacts of size, roofs, and urban or rural sites.”
Furthermore, Bergmann claimed Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum have never pro-actively looked at any sites in Ontario. Rather, they only considered sites brought to them, once word got out they had a stadium design in mind.
“We are aware of many sites in Western New York and Southern Ontario that people think would be suitable,” Bergmann said, “and we know what those all are. But we have done nothing to date to look in any kind of detail how any site might impact our stadium design.”
Bergmann said the last time that he, Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum considered or discussed an Ontario site was about two months ago.
In other words, about a month before the group did the 180 and decided that, in order to buy the Bills, they could not relocate it. (Cynics all say together: “At least not right away.”)
Since then, the group’s stadium focus changed solely to Western New York, Bergmann said.
To that end, next week Bergmann said he is meeting with two Buffalo-area developers about potential stadium sites there.
Not once, Bergmann said, has the Toronto group commissioned a feasibility study about any stadium.
“I don’t know where any of this came from, claiming we’ve done feasibility studies. We haven’t done any. I don’t understand why some of that stuff came out.”
Many Bills fans celebrated Thursday’s news break.
Because the lease and NRA prevent the Bills from knowingly selling to a group with expressed relocation intentions, many have inferred from AP’s report that the feasibility study would qualify as an expressed relocation intention and, thus, disqualify the group from bidding.
I wrote about this very clause in late April, saying it could derail a relocation aggregation’s plans. Some who then derided that report now contend the clause is crucial. (Better late than never.)
Except in this case, Rogers’ old feasibility study does not qualify as a breach of that clause.
Rest assured the Toronto trio will tell the trust that, indeed, relocation had been their shared intention (or unshared, in Rogers’ case) until recently. So of course they looked nominally into a new stadium. But they’ll swear those plans now are boxed, locked and shelved, as it’s not their intention anymore.
And remember, no one in the group has said word one publicly about the Bills sale, let alone about whether they’d move the franchise.
Nothing has changed.
3. DO THEY HAVE THE MONEY?
In breaking the news last Friday that the Toronto trio have roughly equal one-third investment stakes in their bid, I reported that Bon Jovi “is worth much more than has been reported or is believed by financial experts, and similarly is more cash flush than people realize.”
Two other sources have backed that up.
One claims Bon Jovi’s net worth instead of being $300 million, as Forbes reported last year, actually is closer to $500 million, And that Tanenbaum is worth considerably more than the $1.2 billion attributed to him last fall by Canadian Business magazine; he’s worth closer to $2 billion, the source says.
What’s more, the Rogers family finances are even more complicated than we reported last week. Edward, his three sisters and mother do not alone control their reported $7.6-billion fortune. Instead a trust oversees it, which includes Toronto business people. Sizeable chunks of cash outlays must be approved by that trust. Which might well be why Edward could not bid alone.
So, the big question: Does the trio have the money to win the bid?
Yes, sources say, up to and probably a bit over a $1-billion sale price.
But at some point soon thereafter, especially if the sale price approaches $1.5 billion, they’ll be out.
4. HOW MUCH WILL THEY BID?
Indicative (first, non-binding) bids are due on Tuesday at 5 p.m. EDT. Expect all bidders to submit just minutes before that deadline.
Last week I reported that groups are expected to lowball their first bids, probably in the $800-million to $900-million range.
Word is the Toronto group could go as high as $1 billion next week.
Then presumably by the end of next week, the trust — as advised by investment bank Morgan Stanley — will select a small group of finalists, who they’ll meet individually in formal management presentations between Aug. 4 and 15.
After more financial revelations by both sides, finalists will submit binding, final bids. By late September, or perhaps sooner, there likely will be a presumptive new Bills owner, awaiting approval by 24 of the NFL’s other 31 owners at the fall owners meeting in Detroit, Oct. 6-8.
5. DO THEY HAVE ANY HOPE OF WINNING?
Depends who you ask. Here’s what I have gleaned:
* If the price goes sky-high? No.
* If Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula or some surprise, cash-flush multi-billionaire keeps slamming down wads of cash from his jacket pocket until no one else can call, then no.
* If the trust has written instructions, or merely the sentimental wish, to honour Wilson’s legacy and sell the team only to a bidder with local ties and no suspected relocation intentions (notions that many grizzled financial insiders totally roll their eyes at, I’m told), then no.
* If the NFL actually gives a rat’s ass about its reputation and the short-term health of all 32 clubs, then no. Because, as I’ve been saying since April, to sell the Bills to a group with strongly suspected relocation intentions would be to turn that Orchard Park stadium into a ghost town on game days during those last five (or eight), long, ugly years of lame-duck existence in Buffalo.
* If the trust doesn’t really care whether the team stays or goes and only wants to maximize the sale price, and if the NFL doesn’t care about said short-term lame-duck hell in Buffalo (because the NFL actually wants the team to relocate to Toronto, the thinking goes by some insiders), and if none of Pegula, Donald Trump or Western New York billionaire Tom Golisano is prepared to go much over $1 billion, and if Bon Jovi really wants to pour virtually all of his liquid net worth (and maybe liquidize other parts) into an illiquid sports team, then yes. And only then. And with no guarantee the NFL ever will approve a relocation early next decade.