The hapless Buffalo Bills are for sale, and there's plenty of reasons for NFL fans in western New York to keep the faith.
A parade of prospective ownership groups are in touch with the trust responsible for doling out the crown jewel of the late Ralph Wilson's estate. Reports estimate that a dozen such groups will make their bids and the NFL won't find a better new ownership group than that headed by Jon Bon Jovi.
I giggle when the media refer to that group as being headed by "rocker Jon Bon Jovi." You know, as opposed to sous chef Jon Bon Jovi or interior decorator Jon Bon Jovi, because the music superstar from New Jersey transcends qualifier. We know who Bon Jovi is, and even if we don't totally love him, we certainly don't hate him.
Other groups surely are in the running. Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula has a net worth of $3.1 billion, and current NFL rules would allow him to own both teams, since they're in the same city. Noted real estate mogul (and equally noted attention whore) Donald Trump is interested, though his hopes of being approved by the other owners seems unlikely. But most of the identities of the bidders are currently unknown.
That leaves Bon Jovi's group. The former Arena Football League owner is flanked by a pair of Canadian wingers: Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum, and Edward Rogers, deputy chairman of the Toronto-based Rogers communications conglomerate. The group has recently gone out of their way to explain that, should they cast the winning bid, they are "committed to keeping the NFL franchise in Western New York."
The franchise is expected to fetch more than a billion dollars at sale. Not because the Bills are awesome, but because the NFL is awesome, and the Bills are still in the NFL, despite being virtually irrelevant in the last two decades. Despite Ralph Wilson's repeated "crying poverty" before his death, the likelihood of another NFL team hitting the market anytime soon seems incredibly unlikely.
The Bills made four straight Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s, and although they never won the Big One, they're still fondly thought of as one of the NFL's dynasties of that era. But since then, the franchise has won only one playoff game, and had only one winning season since the turn of the century. In fact, the only interesting thing to happen to the Bills in that time is a lawsuit coming from their own cheerleading squad.
If anybody can make the Bills cool again, it's JBJ, and yes, I am trying to make "JBJ" a thing. So just go with it. Dude has sold over 130 million albums, a lot of those in an era when people don't really buy albums any more. And he starred in something called National Lampoon's Pucked and both he and his career lived to tell the tale.
To top it off, Bon Jovi has, among other things, a fair amount of experience in owning a pro football team. He co-founded the Arena League's Philadelphia Soul, which won the AFL title in 2008 before the whole league suspended operations the following year.
At 52, Bon Jovi would be one of the younger principle owners in the NFL. The league's newest owner, Shad Khan, bought the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012. He turned 64 in July. Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is 54. Both men are older than Washington Slurskins owner Daniel Snyder, who will turn 50 in November if the name-change saga surrounding his franchise doesn't give him a fatal heart attack first.
And while the Bon Jovi-headed group has been adamant about their desire to not move the team, their hands will be mostly tied in the near term. The late owner signed an ironclad lease two years ago that will keep the Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium through 2019 (and even if the Bills could get out of it, they'd have to pay a $400 million penalty).
Wilson's persistent bitching about "small market" economics doesn't seem to have scared off any prospective owners. He had no interest, apparently, in selling the naming rights of his eponymous stadium, and his ROI off his original franchise fee, $25,000 in 1959, did not draw a lot of pity. Despite Buffalo's TV market size of 634,000 homes being only 52nd in the nation, only slightly weaker than New Orleans and Jacksonville, the Bills' financials are reportedly in great shape, with no debt and net revenue "probably in the middle of the third quartile pack of the NFL."
That will give the new Bills ownership group time to circle the wagons (I am very sorry) to generate funding for a new stadium. That's another billion dollars that either Bon Jovi's group or the fine people of Western New York will have to scrounge up. And after the poor reception of Super Bowl XLVIII in February, it's unlikely that Roger The Red will dangle that big game carrot to move things along, as he apparently did with the Vikings and 49ers.
The Wilson trust and Morgan Stanley, the firm overseeing the sale of the team, actually have the latitude to accept a lower bid than the highest collected, if they feel that the highest bidder will not be approved by NFL owners. That said, the Bon Jovi group will have to be on the right side of $1 billion to get this done. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's sale agreement totaled $2 billion for the right to buy the Los Angeles Clippers (the freaking Clippers, man!). Everyone is aware that Big Three franchises don't hit the market very often, and that chances to buy in are limited.
As the Bills open up training camp and prepare for another campaign on the field, the major players will soon be opening up their wallets for the showdown off it. The Bills may not clean up in the AFC East, but they can nab something their franchise has never had: a high-profile ownership group. While Wilson aged long enough to watch the modern NFL pass him by, a timeless rock star is now looking to pick up the reins of the little franchise that could.
Buffalo fans, for the first time in a long time, should feel pretty lucky.
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