THE NIAGARA BILLS?: ‘Super group’ partnering Bon Jovi, Tanenbaum, Jacobs family — and committed to new stadium in Niagara Falls, N.Y. — would be ‘hard to beat’ in Bills sale, source says

We’ve established the unlikelihood of the NFL approving a Toronto bid group to buy the Buffalo Bills. At least a Toronto bid group intent on relocating the franchise to Toronto at first chance early next decade.

The only known Toronto bidder — confirmed by Sun Media in April — is co-led by rocker Jon Bon Jovi and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum. The duo and their group had been planning to eventually relocate the Bills to Toronto.

MilsteinBut what if Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum permanently, and earnestly, abandoned such an intention?

And what if they were to team up with a Western New York billionaire, or billionaire family? Say, the sons of Jeremy Jacobs, long-time owner of the NHL’s Boston Bruins?

And what if this new super group were to emphatically endorse the construction of a new Bills stadium not in Canada, and not in Buffalo or surrounding Erie County, but rather in downtown Niagara Falls, N.Y? Say, on the 142-acre property owned by billionaire developer Howard Milstein that’s literally a short walk from Canada? (I snapped the accompanying photo from about 15,000 feet, out the window of my Air Canada jet on the way back from the draft. Milstein’s property outlined in red. The Horseshoe Falls are the white blob at top left, and the Rainbow Bridge, middle right.)

“That could be a game-changer in all this,” a reliable, informed source close to the process told Sun Media on condition of anonymity.

“You’d see other Western New York bidders saying what-the-eff is going on? Now the price is going to go up. And that group is going to be hard to beat.”

Although buzz continues to emanate from Western New York that there could be a slew of bidders — that a parade of tire-kickers already has inquired with the Bills or Erie County over the past two months — it’s quite possible a bidding frenzy might not result.

“Right now there don’t appear to be many bidders on the U.S. side,” the source said. “(Donald) Trump is not being taken seriously. (Thomas) Golisano is.”

Two weeks ago Sun Media was the first to report that Golisano intends to build on the Bills, either alone or as lead bidder with a second Western New York businessman.

“But,” the source said, “what if Bon Jovi went to (New York state) governor (Andrew) Cuomo and said, ‘All this talk about us relocating the team to Toronto is bullshit. I will make a deal with you right now — let’s build a new stadium as part of a tourist site in Niagara Falls (N.Y.)

“ ‘Tell me how you’re going to support it, and we’ll get this done.’”

Cuomo is the savvy gubernatorial incumbent who has built strong political ties to Western New York. He’s stumping for re-election in November — a fortuitous, key factor as the Bills sale process unfurls this summer — and is said to have his eye on a bid for the White House in 2016 on the Democratic ticket, should Hillary Clinton not run.

Pertinent to this discussion, Cuomo in May all but took over the search for a new Bills stadium site. More on that in a moment.

Such an approach by Bon Jovi, as described above, surely would be enthusiastically received by Cuomo, the source said.

“Don’t think the governor at that point wouldn’t run as fast as he can to figure out if he can make that happen.”

It’s not hard to see why Cuomo would do that, and why the source sees the idea as a winner, especially for the Bills. It makes sense for a lot of reasons:

 

*    If Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum stick to their original relocation guns and do not publicly, and convincingly, declare a long-term intention to keep the Bills in Western New York, then their bid is likely doomed. Thanks to a strict 10-year lease and non-relocation agreement signed last year with the state and Erie County, the team effectively cannot leave county-owned Ralph Wilson Stadium in south suburban Buffalo until a brief window in 2020 — from February to July that year, for a $28.4-million penalty — or otherwise until after the 2022 season.

*    To reiterate what we have written several times since late April, this means the Bills, under Toronto-group ownership starting in 2015, would have to play five, and probably eight, lame-duck years at the Ralph before moving to T.O. The spectre of the team leaving down the road apiece would almost certainly result in the locals abandoning the team in droves long before 2020. The 1995 Cleveland Browns mess would pale by comparison. In that one, owner Art Modell announced in November ’95 he was relocating the franchise at season’s end to Baltimore. In lame-duck status, the Browns’ three remaining home games — played before livid, jilted, even vandalizing fans — gave the NFL one of its worst black eyes of the modern era. A Toronto-bound Bills franchise would face either five or (more likely) eight years of similar lame-duck status.

*    Why eight years? Because, according to a prominent east-coast sports franchise relocation expert, Item 3(b)(iv) of the Bills’ non-relocation agreement with the county and state prevents the Bills from planning to build (let alone putting a shovel in the ground for) any new stadium until reaching the 2020 out-clause window. The state of New York and/or Erie County could seek immediate injunctive relief to prevent such action — even a land purchase. As it takes a minimum two-and-a-half years to build a stadium from planning-start to finish, the Toronto-bound Bills — if the expert’s analysis is correct — would have little choice but to remain at the Ralph until the 2023 season. There wouldn’t be any point in plunking down the 28-mil to opt out of the lease in early 2020. In late April Sun Media asked Mark Poloncarz, chief executive of Erie County and one of the designers of the lease and non-relocation agreements, if the above interpretation is correct. “I’m not going to answer any questions about when (a Toronto-based ownership group) could start building a stadium or not,” Poloncarz said coyly in a telephone interview. “I think that that’s up to the particular parties to try to explore and see if they want to do something that could theoretically violate the lease.” Is it fair to say that item 3(b)(iv) serves as yet another tall obstacle for a Toronto ownership group to overcome? “I think that’s fair to say,” Poloncarz said.

*    But couldn’t the Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto serve as an interim Bills home for the 2020, 2021 and 2022 seasons? At best, maybe. The disastrous Bills-in-Toronto series notwithstanding (it’s on hold for 2014 but is likely dead), the former SkyDome is not compliant as a full-time NFL stadium, first and foremost because its seating capacity (approximately 45,000 for NFL, according to Rogers Media Inc.) is below the league’s traditional 50,000-seat minimum. But once the domed stadium’s new grass playing surface goes in by the 2018 season for the primary tenant (Rogers-owned Toronto Blue Jays), the lowest-level seats no longer will be reconfigurable, a source said. That will preclude CFL games from being played at the Rogers Centre thereafter, and might be true of smaller-surface NFL games too. If nothing else, if the Bills-in-Toronto series isn’t already dead, the switch to grass at Rogers might ensure it is after 2017.

*    For all these reasons it is inconceivable that 75% of NFL owners would bless the sale of the Bills to a relocation-intent Toronto group. To move the team would require the approval of 24 owners not once but twice, commissioner Roger Goodell told Sun Media on May 7: the first time in a months-away ownership-approval vote, and again years later in a relocation vote.

*    As for a new stadium, an informed Toronto source says the Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum group had (rightly) counted on basically zero public-sector funding to build a new NFL stadium in the Toronto area. Indeed, MLSE right now cannot even squeeze $10 million out of the feds to tweak their MLS team’s stadium so as to accommodate the CFL’s Toronto Argos, a Canadian pro-sports institution that practically predates Confederation. And the Toronto group is not going to pay a billion-plus for the Bills, then another billion from its own pockets to build a new stadium. Throw in the relocation fee to the NFL — which, sources say, might be in the $100-$200-million range — and the entire Bills bill, in Canadian dollars, might approach $3 billion. Uh, no. So if the Toronto group somehow gets the team, it might not have any choice but to pass the cost of the stadium along to ticket-buyers — in the form of PSLs. The dreaded personal seat licences. To pay for a billion-dollar stadium that accommodates, say, 60,000, and without any other financial help (for the sake of argument), each seat’s PSL would have to average $16,667. That’s before the PSL owner bought one ticket. Would the NFL go for that?

*    But things are much different in America, re public-sector financing of NFL stadiums. Infrastructure might be falling apart everywhere but, hey, municipalities, counties and states can always seem to come up hundreds of millions of dollars to appease the NFL and its local football team. The Minnesota Vikings just got half-a-billion out of the public sector to build their new stadium in Minneapolis. Similarly, if Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum team up with the Jacobs clan and plunk down roots, they could count on significant public-sector funding for a new stadium. On the campaign trail Cuomo practically has assured as much from the state’s end. And the belief to this point that the Toronto group has eventual relocation intentions might allow it to leverage more from the public sector on the U.S. side of the Niagara River than any purely Western New York bid group could.

*    Bon Jovi “remains passionate in his pursuit of an NFL franchise,” his publicist Ken Sunshine informed Sun Media exclusively in April. That the rocker is widely admired by NFL owners is no longer mere speculation or rumour. Both Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and John Mara of the New York Giants — two of the most influential owners in the league — confirmed as much to Sun Media two weeks ago at the league’s spring meeting in Atlanta. “There hasn’t been anybody more qualified to be involved in sports ownership, or certainly ownership in the NFL, than Jon Bon Jovi,” Jones said. Mara added the next day: “I think he’d be a great NFL owner. He’s got a really good knowledge and passion for the game, and he’s obviously a smart businessman. If he puts together the right group of people I think he could be a very successful owner.” Commissioner Roger Goodell likes him too. The New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft, also a close friend and admirer of Bon Jovi’s, is another inner-circle NFL owner whose opinion carries weight within the league’s billionaires club. So NFL owners like the idea of Bon Jovi as an owner, and the majority of them like the idea of the Bills remaining in the Buffalo area, as Mara said two weeks ago. Seems like a two-inch putt.

*    Tanenbaum, who made much of his $1.2-billion fortune as a construction magnate, isn’t without ties to Western New York. He attended Cornell University in Ithaca in the late 1960s and today is a member of Cornell’s University Council. And as owner/governor of the Toronto Raptors, Tanenbaum is highly respected in NBA circles; he’s now a member of that league’s senior most owners committee, advisory/finance.

*    A Western New York source involved in the bid process said he still hears that the Jacobs family will not lead a bid for the Bills. Rather, it will sit back and be ready to potentially provide last-moment “over the top” money for a leading bid group that might require it — a group that would keep the team local, and a group the Jacobs family likes.

*    Tanenbaum certainly knows Jeremy Jacobs well. As respective governors of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, the two have been attending NHL owners meetings together since the late 1990s. They are believed to be friendly, in spite of the fact that Jacobs has long been a notoriously hard-lining hawk in talks with the NHL players union, while Tanenbaum has been a conciliatory moderate. NFL rules prevent an owner of a pro-sports franchise in one NFL city from owning an NFL team in another, which is why Jacobs’ three Buffalo-area-raised sons — probably led by the youngest, Charlie, who is Jeremy’s alternate governor on the Bruins — would have to be the Bills’ part-owners on paper. The Jacobs family has long been based in East Aurora, N.Y. — just 11 km (7 miles) east of Ralph Wilson Stadium.

*    By car, downtown Niagara Falls, N.Y., is 47 km (29 miles) closer to Toronto City Hall than Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park — 130 km (81 miles) compared to 177 km (110 miles). A stadium that much closer to Toronto and the 8.6 million residents in the entire “Golden Horseshoe” metropolis that wraps the west end of Lake Ontario is sure to draw more of those residents to watch the Bills. If you’ve ever driven from the Toronto area to a Bills game, you know the aggravation — after finally having made it through Customs and Immigration on the U.S. side of the Peace Bridge — of having to drive yet another half-hour to get to the Ralph. Niagara Falls is about 20 minutes closer to Toronto than just the Peace Bridge.

*    And there’s this. The 2 million or so residents in the west side of the Greater Toronto Area live nearly as close to Niagara Falls as they do to the northern suburbs of Toronto. One long-rumoured potential location for a new NFL stadium in Toronto is in Markham, just north of the east end of Toronto proper. Oakville, one of the most populous communities in the western GTA, is 65 km (40 miles) from Markham, and 95 km (59 miles) from Niagara Falls — and the latter is probably a quicker drive.

*    A prominent East Coast sports-franchise sale and relocation expert told Sun Media in early April that Niagara Falls might make the most sense of any new stadium location in Western New York, as much as anything because it would draw more ticket-buyers from the Golden Horseshoe. “I don’t think you’re going to lose your season-ticket holders from Buffalo,” the expert said. Well, not a lot of them, probably, but surely some — especially if something isn’t done to widen or augment the pair of narrow, two-lane I-190 bridges on either end of Grand Island, and their bottlenecking $1 tollbooths. Would the additional Canadian ticket-buyers more than make up for the ticket drop among Western New Yorkers? Almost certainly. “I think what ends up happening in that circumstance is you might go up from 18% season tickets from Canadians (as is the case now, the Bills say) up to 25% or 30%,” the source said. “You’d actually position yourself better for sponsorship and advertising. It could be great for the whole region. I think it would work out very well. It would play well, too. I could see more synergies from MLSE or Rogers or whoever is involved. There are a lot of cross-promotional perspectives.”

*    The expert also surmised, as has been written, that the inclusion of Niagara Falls, N.Y., mayor Paul Dyster on Gov. Cuomo’s sub-committee on the New Stadium Working Group sub-committee — a trilateral advisory group comprising Bills reps, key politicians and Buffalo-area business leaders, all seeking a long-term stadium solution for the Bills — was “definitely not a coincidence.” Much probably can be read into that appointment, the expert said. Furthermore consider that the owner of that 142-acre parcel of land in downtown Niagara Falls, N.Y. — Milstein — is a loyal political ally of Cuomo’s and a generous contributor to the governor’s election campaigns, to the extent that Cuomo appointed Milstein in 2011 as chairman of the New York State Thruway board of directors.

*    Cuomo hired sports stadium consultant Irwin Raij, of law firm Foley & Lardner LLP, to fast-track a report by next month to identify the best new-stadium sites in the Buffalo/Niagara area. Milstein’s property, while outside Erie County, likely will be one of the three or four finalist sites chosen.

*    Canadians (and any American Bills fans lodging at the many river-front hotels on the Canadian side that face the Falls) could literally WALK from Canada, for 50 cents apiece across the Rainbow Bridge, to a Bills game on Milstein’s property. That property is adjacent to the Seneca Niagara Casino and is so close to Canada that its western-most edge is almost twice as close to the Rainbow Bridge as the Horseshoe Falls.

*    A small point but one worth making. Because you can’t bring alcohol and raw meat into the U.S. from Canada, the Bills or some entity could make it easy for border-crossers to buy such tailgate necessities or rent barbecues, etc., upon arriving at the grounds. Tailgating as Americans know it is not permitted in Ontario, where alcohol cannot be consumed outside of private residences or government-licensed bars, restaurants, event halls and special events. Do not under-estimate this factor in drawing more Canadians to Bills games; almost all Canadians I know who regularly attend games at the Ralph cite alcohol-allowed tailgating as a top reason.

*    In announcing in mid-May he won’t bid on the Bills, the billionaire Milstein said in a statement, “We are prepared to put substantial personal and business resources behind (the) effort (to keep the Bills in Western New York), including our land in Niagara Falls. I look forward to working with all parties and any prospective buyers to help keep the Bills in upstate New York where they belong.” But according to sources, Milstein isn’t saying publicly or privately what he might want for his property. Will he offer it up on the cheap, or seek top dollar? Is he just waiting for the phone to ring? Asked about such speculation, a spokesman for Milstein on Sunday told Sun Media in an e-mail, “Mr. Milstein is prepared to commit significant resources to ensure the Bills stay in Western New York. Beyond that, we have no comment.”

*    This super-group idea would mean Toronto might not ever get its own NFL team, or at least not for decades. To make this plan digestible west and north of the border, then, something further would have to be done to promote the fact that the team would not just be Buffalo’s anymore. It’d be Toronto’s and Ontario’s too. But could this cross-border shotgun marriage-of-sorts really work? As we have written before, many Torontonians look down on their Buffalo counterparts, as gourmet restaurateurs would the blue-collar owners of a greasy-spoon diner. In reciprocation, many Buffalonians view themselves as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Torontonians as Culture Club. Can you make everybody one big happy NFL family? Maybe you can’t. But the key to such regionalized success is in encouraging Ontarians, and Torontonians in particular, to feel more as though the Bills team is theirs. Few do now.

*    So how about renaming the franchise something like the “Niagara Bills?” Horror!? Perhaps to Buffalonians. But there’s plenty of precedent in naming, or renaming, a pro sports franchise for regionalization’s sake. It has happened for decades. In the NFL alone the Arizona Cardinals used to be the Phoenix Cardinals, and the New England Patriots used to be the Boston Patriots in early-days AFL play. And they’re not called the Minneapolis Vikings, Nashville Titans, Charlotte Panthers or Tampa Buccaneers, right? What’s more, Canadians and Ontarians take just as much ownership in the regional name “Niagara” — and in the particular name “Niagara Falls” — as do Americans and New Yorkers. The Canadian-side city of that name actually is more populous than its U.S. counterpart, 83,000 to 50,000, and Ontario’s Niagara Region boasts a population of about 500,000. Not only would the “Niagara Bills” serve as a potential cross-border unifying element, it would have its own built-in tourism advertisement — for both sides of the border.

- – -

Would there be game-day logistics to work out in Niagara Falls, N.Y? Such as parking as well as easier freeway access? Undoubtedly. They might even prove insurmountable, as is. But perhaps that’s where the public sector — especially the state of New York — could come in.

Do we know if the Jacobs family would give this ‘super group’ plan a second’s thought? No. If not, perhaps Golisano or another Western New York billionaire would like the idea.

Bottom line from the Toronto perspective, though, is this. If Bon Jovi and Tanenbaum truly want to own an NFL franchise any time soon, the above plan might be the best way to do it. Or even the only way.

Without the potentially obliterating threat of a Toronto-based NFL team, the Argos and CFL would even approve.

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “THE NIAGARA BILLS?: ‘Super group’ partnering Bon Jovi, Tanenbaum, Jacobs family — and committed to new stadium in Niagara Falls, N.Y. — would be ‘hard to beat’ in Bills sale, source says

  1. Eric

    This makes too much sense not to take seriously. I firmly believe, and have stated all along, that the real goal of the “Bills in Toronto Series” was to make the Bills have a claim to the Toronto market as their home turf if/when needed, more so than anything else. If they had good games and sold tickets along the way, all the better. But it was to sell the rest of the league on the idea of Toronto as part of the Bills’ footprint in North America, and here is the result.

    I love Buffalo, and have always liked Toronto as well. I grew up a Blue Jays fan, and go to T.O. all the time. Buffalo to Toronto is like Oakland to San Francisco, Newark to New York City, etc…. this can work if needed.

  2. Alex

    How do I get red of the “share” toolbar on the lefthand side? It’s covering just enough of the text to be supremely annoying.

  3. John

    Anyone who has spent time in Niagara Falls, NY knows how badly that town needs something like this. The unemployment, the odd looking downtown with nothing to do besides go to the casino, and the stark contrast between the quality of life near the Rainbow Bridge versus the massive poverty and crime about a few miles away. They need those jobs. Nothing else is ever going to come to Niagara Falls, NY like this. If it does, I can’t wait to see a much-needed revitalized downtown with things to do, places to eat, an actual transportation system that we can take back to Toronto, and a more positive feeling that good things are happening there. I have to admit I prefer Niagara Falls, NY in that it’s more real and less tacky than ours – there’s no Clifton Hill with $1.69 t-shirts and fast food every ten steps. I wish Niagara Falls, NY the best.

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