Bills cannot be relocated before 2020 — the long-reported $400M buyout option does not exist

It’s Wilson’s last ‘enormous gift’ to Buffalo, Sun Media has learned

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Buffalo Bills aren’t going anywhere until 2020 at the earliest, Sun Media has learned.

Not to Toronto. Not to Los Angeles. Not anywhere.

It’s Ralph Wilson’s last “enormous gift” to the people of Western New York, according to Marc Ganis, president of Sports Corp. Ltd.

Widely circulated reports since December 2012 that a $400-million buyout option exists through 2019 in the NFL franchise’s stadium lease with the state of New York and Erie County are “flat-out wrong,” Ganis told me.

In an interview Wednesday morning at the conclusion of the NFL annual meeting, the prominent sports-franchise consultant said that whoever should buy the Bills in the wake of Ralph Wilson’s death on Tuesday cannot relocate the team from Western New York at any time over the remaining nine years of their lease agreement, which expires after the 2022 season.

The exception is the brief, well-known period of time following the seventh year of the extension — that is, after the 2019 season.

“I’m very familiar with the Bills’ new lease in Buffalo, and Ralph Wilson gave the people of Buffalo and Western New York an enormous gift,” Ganis said at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes.

“In this new 10-year lease that he signed, for the first seven years there is no opportunity to buy that lease out, or terminate it. None. That team is required to stay in that stadium for at least for the first seven years, and one year already has passed in that lease, so for the next six years.”

Ganis was intimately involved behind the scenes in the relocation in the 1990s of both the Los Angeles Raiders back to Oakland and the Los Angeles Rams to St. Louis. He walks behind the velvet ropes at NFL owners meetings, and is a trusted confidante, friend and adviser to many of the league’s power brokers.

In the 15 months since the Bills renewed the lease, the existence of a $400-million ‘out’ clause has been universally reported in Western New York, in Ontario, by me, even on the Bills’ own website. But that clause has been misinterpreted, Ganis said.

“That is written simply as a backup liquidated-damages matter,” he said.

Translation: in the extremely unlikely event the next owner should somehow win a court decision allowing him or her to break the Ralph Wilson Stadium lease, a $400-million penalty would still exist.

“But they cannot win the threshold issue (in court),” Ganis said. “We have something in the U.S. that we call a specific performance clause. Teams cannot terminate under a specific performance clause — cannot.

“New York State and Erie County wrote this in properly to keep the team in there for at least seven years. And Ralph Wilson, (president/CEO) Russ Brandon and (CFO) Jeff Littman knew exactly what they were doing. And the NFL knew exactly what it was doing when it approved it. I’ve spoken to almost all of these people about it.”

The lease’s brief opt-out window after the 2019 season allows for the Bills to be relocated for a $28.4-million fee — peanuts in a purchase-and-relocation transaction that might easily exceed $1 billion.

Ganis said that once this opt-out window closes, the club again cannot be relocated until the lease expires following the 2022 season, for the same reason.

“They all knew exactly what they were doing when they agreed to this lease and approved it,” Ganis said.

This was the quid pro quo for the state of New York and Erie County paying for $130 million in upgrades to Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park. Such construction ramped up this off-season.

As for Wilson’s successor, speculation has practically petrified into fact that some deep-pocketed individual would buy the Bills and relocate the club to Toronto, Los Angeles, or elsewhere.

Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News reported Wednesday that, following Wilson’s death at age 95 on Tuesday, the club “will be placed in a trust … and no quick sale of the team is expected. In fact, the trust is likely to control and manage the team for at least a couple of years before any sale of the team is arranged, both team and National Football League sources tell the Buffalo News.”

The long-held belief that Wilson’s survivors — wife Mary and daughters Christy and Edith — plan to not keep the club in the family and will sell it is indeed accurate, Gaughan reported.

Now for the much-discussed Toronto speculation.

CBS Sports reported in late November that rocker Jon Bon Jovi — a friend of several NFL owners who is “consumed” with becoming an owner himself — “is among the parties positioning to purchase the Buffalo Bills when the team comes up for sale.”

Canadian reports followed that by saying top executives of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment — the Toronto company that owns the NHL’s Maple Leafs, NBA’s Raptors and the Air Canada Centre, among other properties — are in league with Bon Jovi in his bid to buy the Bills, including MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum.

Tim Leiweke, CEO of MLSE, confirmed as much in an interview with the Toronto Star.

“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.”

Another long-murmured potential Toronto buyer of the Bills is Edward Rogers III, deputy chairman of Rogers Communication Inc., the Canadian cable and telecommunications giant. His late father Ted Rogers — founder of the company that bears his name — actively sought an NFL franchise for Toronto in the 1990s.

Today it probably would cost close to $1 billion US to buy the Bills. Construction of a new stadium large enough to meet NFL standards (which Toronto’s Rogers Centre does not) probably would cost another $1 billion.

An NFL-calibre headquarters and training complex would increase the pricetag by perhaps $50 million more. On top of that the NFL would slap perhaps as much as a $200-$400 million relocation fee (no one knows) onto the Bills-to-Toronto bill.

The ballpark $2.5-billion total presumably would only increase by 2020.

But such speculation is all moot for now.

“At least for the first seven years there is no opportunity — no chance — that the Bills will leave Buffalo. Period, end of story,” Ganis said.

“So any speculation to the alternative is flat-out wrong.”

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Toronto & Buffalo co-existing NFL teams?

Commissioner Roger Goodell weighs in

ORLANDO, Fla. — Could the nearby cross-border cities of Buffalo and Toronto ever have co-existing NFL franchises?

QMI Agency asked that of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday morning, at the conclusion of the league’s annual meeting.

“I’m not sure that I’ve studied that enough to know,” Goodell said. “I know there are a lot of (Ontario) fans that come (to Bills games), having been from Western New York. They are close from a proximity standpoint and there are fans that come from Toronto, and there are fans that go from Buffalo up to Toronto.

“They have worked very hard in Buffalo, and obviously Western New York and Southern Ontario to regionalize that team, to attract a broader area.”

Indeed, Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon said last month that 18% of fans at any Bills home game come from Canada.

“Again, that’s important and that’s something that we want to encourage.”

One thought on “Bills cannot be relocated before 2020 — the long-reported $400M buyout option does not exist

  1. Tony Wiertel

    Mr. Wilson, thanks for being a loyal owner and good friend to Buffalo and Western New York. Your legacy will live on forever! May God rest your soul and grant you eternal peace!

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