LeBron’s boomerang act may have touched off a Rust Belt moment in pro sports, but the region’s cities still face serious challenges to their first-division status. Will Creeley visited his hometown of Buffalo and found a fan base pondering the future of their hard-luck NFL franchise. The fate of the Bills is in the balance as fans mourn the passing of owner Ralph Wilson and confront the radical economics of 21st century pro sports.
In a recent study of how childhood shapes adult consumer preferences, economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz analyzed Facebook data on the age and gender of sports teams’ fans. Writing up his findings for the New York Times, Stephens-Davidowitz detailed a dramatic link between a team’s historic success and its male supporters: If an eight-year-old boy’s favorite team is a winner, the chances that boy will remain a fan of that team as an adult increase substantially. (The correlation doesn’t hold for female supporters, who appear equally likely to become fans at different times throughout their lives.) A team’s window to rack up lifelong diehards doesn’t last forever, though. All bets are off after the kid turns 14. But during those six years, a team can permanently rewire a boy’s brain by winning.
When I was eight, I watched my first Buffalo Bills game, a playoff contest against the Cleveland Browns. I remember it vividly, in part because it was also my first experience with tacos. (I remain a taco fan to this day.) In what should have been a warning, the Bills lost. They might have won, but running back Ronnie Harmon dropped Jim Kelly’s winning touchdown pass in the end zone. For years afterward, my friends and I would spit the name “Harmon” at each other whenever a catchable ball hit asphalt during our after-school games. But I was hooked anyway. The Bills rewarded my burgeoning loyalty, appearing in four consecutive Super Bowls by the time I turned 14 in 1995.
As I read the Times story aloud, my wife, sitting next to me on the couch, couldn’t stop laughing. Everything was explained: the “GOB1LLS” license plate on our 2003 Honda Civic, the season tickets and the hours spent each fall driving hundreds of miles by myself from our house in Philadelphia back home to Buffalo for games, the pairs of “lucky” Bills socks stashed away in my drawer, the deathless Gmail thread cataloguing the team’s every move through tens of thousands of messages traded between my old Buffalo crew. To my wife’s amusement and my horror, the study revealed my obsession to be an economic phenomenon, as predictable as the price of chicken wings.
[blocktext align=”left”]For a Rust Belt town hanging tough after decades of depression, the Bills offered a blessed respite.[/blocktext]The saving grace, I guess, is that I’m not alone. Those early-nineties Bills enthralled Western New Yorkers young and old, male and female. Like all Buffalonians of a certain age, I remember dressing up for “Bills Day” in grade school, adults wearing Zubaz unironically, and the team’s ubiquitous logo charging proudly all over our snowy city. For a Rust Belt town hanging tough after decades of economic depression and an ever-declining population, the Bills offered a blessed respite and a few hours of renewed national prominence on Sunday afternoons. It was fun. Hell, for a sports-obsessed pre-teen like myself, it was heavenly. I was the perfect age for it, maybe; I’ve often been thankful in retrospect that I wasn’t yet old enough to access alcohol or credit cards.
Our Bills never won it all, of course. Four straight Super Bowl losses left the team a national punchline. (What’s Buffalo’s area code? 044.) Even Lisa Simpson bet against us. My poor sister will probably never forget her older brother’s howl as I ran upstairs sobbing after Scott Norwood’s field goal attempt soared wide right at the close of Super Bowl XXV. Three years later, with the Bills losing the Super Bowl again—badly—my mother smartly hustled me out of the house during the game to take a walk around our dark, hushed neighborhood, the streets empty and cold, the TV sets glowing through winter windows.
It wasn’t all bad. Those painful failures provided the City of Good Neighbors still more opportunities, however unwanted, to demonstrate unique compassion and resilience. The Tuesday after Norwood’s missed field goal, my mom took me out of school to head downtown to Niagara Square, where we joined nearly 30,000 people in welcoming home our beloved runners-up. The crowd chanted “Scotty! Scotty!”—and when that poor kicker took the stage, the cheer was deafening. He was one of us. If losing builds character, we imagined ourselves to be constructing interior Taj Mahals.
[blocktext align=”right”]It wasn’t all bad. Those painful failures provided opportunities to demonstrate unique compassion and resilience.[/blocktext]And Bills fans will still remind you, with a practiced defensiveness, that no team before or since has reached four consecutive Super Bowls. Accordingly, losing each time has lent the accomplishment an almost mythical shimmer, the football equivalent of Sisyphus’ boulder tumbling back down, or the eagle returning to eat Prometheus’ liver anew. Better to have loved and lost… right?
The glory days of falling just short of a title every year are long gone. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since Bill Clinton was in office. The National Football League’s longest postseason drought—14 years and counting—has rendered the team irrelevant for more than a decade. That’s a lot of eight-to-fourteen-year-olds to miss.
But the Bills’ biggest problem isn’t the past. It’s the future.
A deep, existential uncertainty now gnaws at the franchise. The only owner the team has ever known, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., died in March at the age of 95. An NFL Hall of Famer, Ralph—he was just Ralph to Western New Yorkers—was known among NFL scribes as the league’s conscience, crusading for the interests of small-market clubs like Buffalo and Cleveland as the NFL gained immense wealth and a corporate single-mindedness. He voted against every proposed franchise relocation and declined opportunities to leave Buffalo’s collapsing market for more upscale environs.
[blocktext align=”left”]If the NFL was handing out teams today, Buffalo would be left out in the cold.[/blocktext]As Ralph got old and then older, the team’s future after his inevitable departure became a source of intense anxiety and debate. Bills fans have long been keenly aware that Buffalo, the population of which peaked in 1950, is an increasingly unlikely home for one of the NFL’s 32 franchises. If the league was handing out teams today, Buffalo would be left out in the cold; after all, the city’s media market is just the nation’s 52nd largest, eked out by burgs like Monmouth, New Jersey; Greensboro, North Carolina; and West Palm Beach, Florida. The Bills have aimed to transcend their city’s limits by luring support from Rochester and Southern Ontario’s “Golden Horseshoe,” and have successfully expanded their regional draw in recent years. But the insecurity of being the league’s poor cousin has long gnawed at Buffalo.
Threats loom: nearby Toronto beckons to the north, Los Angeles to the west, San Antonio or Las Vegas to the south, and even London (England, not Ontario) to the east. With characteristic stubbornness, Ralph refused to discuss his intentions, only letting it be known that he would not sell the team in his lifetime. And sure enough, he went all the way, calling the shots from buying the team in 1960 for $25,000 to his death in late March.
Now that Ralph is gone, Buffalo’s long-feared day of reckoning has arrived. The Bills has been placed into a trust, to be sold for a sum expected to reach or even exceed one billion dollars. The flurry of public posturing by potential suitors has been simultaneously compelling and nauseating. Donald Trump has bleated out his interest in the team to anyone who’ll listen, and Jon Bon Jovi, of all people, is expected to lead an investment team of well-heeled Canadian corporate titans with plans of relocating to Toronto. (Buffalo promptly responded with a Bon Jovi boycott.)
[blocktext align=”right”]With a sale expected soon, Western New York sleeps uneasily.[/blocktext]Ace Buffalo News reporter Tim Graham contends that Los Angeles is an unlikely destination, and some potential buyers have vowed to keep the team in Buffalo. Sadly, one name long associated with those efforts, legendary Bills quarterback and Buffalo resident Jim Kelly, has been largely absent from the post-Ralph conversation. Photos of a pale Jimbo battling aggressive oral cancer and enduring chemotherapy have prompted an outpouring of support—and have provided an unnerving reminder of an uncertain future. With a sale expected soon, Western New York sleeps uneasily.
Meanwhile, the shameless corporate extortion that constitutes the professional sports stadium construction process has begun in earnest. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made plain in recent interviews that keeping the Bills in Buffalo will require replacing 43-year-old Ralph Wilson Stadium, which sits in obscure suburban splendor in Orchard Park, New York, twenty-five minutes south of downtown Buffalo. Recognizing Goodell’s statement as the ransom note it is, both Senator Chuck Schumer and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have vowed to keep the Bills in Buffalo. Cuomo commissioned an urgent study of possible locations for a new stadium in May.
[blocktext align=”left”]The shameless corporate extortion of the pro sports stadium construction process has begun in earnest.[/blocktext]Never mind that the unsightly concrete mass affectionately known as “the Ralph” is already undergoing $130 million of renovations, paid for jointly by taxpayers and the team; the Commish has spoken. The Bills—if they remain in Buffalo—will likely demand a brand-new stadium, because new stadiums mean fresh revenue streams and higher franchise values. Perhaps it makes sense to locate a new stadium downtown, near Buffalo’s re-emergent waterfront and its historic Canalside district. (Or perhaps not. The question of taxpayer-funded pro sports facilities in Buffalo or any city is too complex to settle here.) It’s clear that even with the renovations—including, in an unintended remembrance of its namesake, a new black paint job—the Ralph is a relic in the NFL’s 2014.
Still, the impending end of the Ralph is a shame. The stadium is a remnant of the down-market 1970s and 80s, boasting cheap ticket prices, excellent sightlines, and acres of surrounding parking lots, grass fields, and front lawns ideally suited for firing up a grill and downing a six-pack at 8 a.m. on game days. Once the Ralph is no longer the home of the Bills—likely no later than 2020, when a newly-signed ten year lease offers a one-year “out” clause at minimal penalty—a rowdy, beer-soaked thicket of Americana will be cleared out for good.
I brought my father-in-law, a Minnesotan from St. Paul, to the tailgate for a game against the Patriots a couple of years back. After a morning of chili, sausages, beer, some unidentifiable bacon-related thing, and playing catch in a sunny, grassy lot with friends I’d known for decades, Bob put his hand on my shoulder and told me, almost teary-eyed, that we didn’t know how good we had it.
Compared to the Sunday experience in most NFL cities, where fans are herded into antiseptic, corporate-sponsored “parties” and charged dearly for it, Bob was right. Orchard Park on a Sunday morning in the fall is an unregulated triumph of simple pleasures: grills smoking, footballs flying, flags flapping. After the Bills blew a halftime lead en route to another loss, I told Bob he’d had the authentic experience. The team hasn’t reached the postseason for 14 years, but the faithful will tell you they’ve never lost a party.
[blocktext align=”right”]Orchard Park on a Sunday morning in the fall is an unregulated triumph of simple pleasures.[/blocktext]While billionaires and politicians will soon determine if the Bills are to remain Buffalo’s own, the current iteration of the team prepares, undaunted, to play a fresh season. As ever, hope springs eternal—largely as a function of youth. The Bills’ quarterback, second-year starter EJ Manuel, wasn’t yet a year old when Norwood missed his kick. First-round draft pick Sammy Watkins, a dynamic wide receiver hailed as an elite talent, grew up a Bills fan after spending those formative years eight through 14 controlling Buffalo in the Madden video games. It’s hard not to project the impact a winning season would have on the franchise’s future. The city loves the team dearly, even when they lose—and when they win, people go completely bonkers. A playoff berth would go a long way towards keeping the team in town. But if Manuel feels the pressure, he hasn’t let on.
I was back home recently for a friend’s wedding, getting drinks a couple days before the ceremony at a small bar in Black Rock, my old neighborhood on the city’s northwest side. To my surprise, both Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon and General Manager Doug Whaley were posted up at the bar; your typical NFL front office does not hang out at local bars, but Buffalo is a little different. Whaley was talking to my friend, the groom, a season-ticket holder who, like me, drives home from Brooklyn to catch the Bills in the fall.
[blocktext align=”left”]“I’m a diehard,” he told us with a big smile, pretending to inject himself with a fix.[/blocktext]“Doug!” said my friend, who was a couple drinks in. “You gotta meet my buddy Will; he does the drive, too—from Philadelphia.” I shook Whaley’s hand and explained that I’d grown up a Bills fan just a few blocks from where we stood. He thanked me for my long-distance support, and told me he could relate. A Pittsburgh native, Whaley told us he has season tickets for the Pitt Panthers, the Penguins, the Pirates, everything. “I’m a diehard,” he told us with a big smile, pretending to inject himself with a fix.
It didn’t surprise me. After all, the Pirates had won the World Series in 1979—just before Whaley turned 8.
Will Creeley lives in Philadelphia.
Skyline and Ralph Wilson Stadium photos by Richard Cavalleri/Shutterstock
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