June 15, 2008

The Future of the Buffalo Bills

WHEN I WAS A STUDENT in beautiful Ann Arbor, Mich., I would routinely watch Canadian television via my cable firm's CBC feed out of Windsor, Ont. Occasionally, this particular affiliate would run one of those time-filling commercials advertising its own existence, and I remember being struck by the affiliate's tagline: "Television We Can Call Our Own."

This, in a nutshell, is why conditions are acutely unfavorable for any NFL franchise -- much less the Buffalo Bills -- to succeed in the Canadian marketplace, and why any investor who supports the Bills moving to Toronto will be in for a nasty surprise. But if you ask me, all this talk of an NFL team moving to the True North puts the cart before the horse. A better question to ask is: why would the Bills leave Buffalo in the first place?

True, there is no denying Mr Wilson's statements that the team will be sold upon his death. With the team worth some $821 million, according to Forbes magazine, Mr Wilson's heirs would almost certainly face a staggering estate tax bill if the team were to pass directly into their hands. Still, even if the team was sold to outside investors, I don't see why they would necessarily leave Buffalo.

This is because the Bills' finances are sound. It may be in a small market, but according to Forbes, the team has the seventh-best operating income in the entire NFL. At $34.6 million, that works out to about 18 percent of revenues, which are $189 million. It's worth noting that revenue figure is $5 million higher than that of the (evil) Indianapolis Colts, which only pull in $184 million each year. Furthermore, the Bills have a debt-to-value ratio of just 9 pc, the fifth-best such ratio in the league. If you ask me, these numbers suggest the Buffalo Bills are one of the best-run teams in the league.

So why would a new owner go and screw that up? No, really. Why fix something that isn't broken?

We know that as football continues to grow in popularity, the value of the franchise should rise accordingly, if only from ever-increasing television revenues. But not only would any new owners make money there, the fact the team is financially sound will represent a immediate and perpetual return on investment. That's a known quantity. If you ask me, a sharp businessman would recognize that, and would prefer that over the unknowns associated with moving the team somewhere else.

Besides, why would a new owner -- and the league -- risk the backlash that would inevitably result from moving the team? Buffalo has been in the league for decades upon decades -- the idea of moving it would spark howls of outrage. When the Cleveland Browns left for Baltimore back in the Nineties, all of Northeast Ohio felt it had been stabbed in the back, and team owner Art Modell became one of the most hated villains of all time. (It is The Rant's humble opinion that Mr Modell will burn in Hell). One would think those are headaches everyone involved would wish to avoid.

Simply put, it doesn't make sense to take Buffalo out of the NFL picture, and I'd be shocked if anyone would seriously consider doing that after a thorough analysis of the situation. It would make more sense to buy an expansion team -- for which there are several suitable cities (Los Angeles, Los Angeles again, San Antonio, Orlando) -- or buy and move a team that didn't have such history, fan support and general likability. *cough* Jacksonville *cough*

As for this idea of moving Buffalo to Toronto, I would suggest proponents of this idea have not fully considered how Canada works. There are a few things to consider here that, when fully analyzed, will show why such an idea is untenable.

First, football is not the most popular sport in Canada. That would be ice hockey. Although for most Americans hockey is the disease-ridden tree on the landscape of sport, this is not the case in Canada, where pretty much everyone loves hockey. Football, on the other hand, is a distant second in terms of popularity.

Second, one of the defining characteristics of being Canadian is not being American, viz.

No, really. That commerical's funny, but it's not a joke. That sentiment is very real. It is so real, in fact, that the Canadian Football League has proclaimed "This is Our League" as its marketing slogan for the year -- with all the nationalist sentiment that suggests. I realize the idea of Canadian nationalism may prompt some raised eyebrows -- they do have trouble celebrating Canada Day, after all -- but just because they're not flag-wavers does not mean Canadians don't have a lot of pride in their country.

Although it naturally went unnoticed on this side of the border, it seems to me rather extraordinary that Mark Cohon, the CFL's commissioner, wrote a column -- published in no less than the National Post yesterday -- rallying his countrymen to the CFL's banner. Folks, give it a read: it essentially calls Canadians to general quarters. Over football.

In such an environment, it seems to me cooperation from the CFL would be key for an NFL team to succeed in Toronto, which after all has a CFL squad of its own. But given the present state of affairs, it seems unlikely the CFL would sit idly by as the NFL planned to invade their home turf. Of course, the Canadian Government also has no plans to sit idly by -- one Canadian senator has already introduced a bill to essentially keep the NFL out of Canada.

Now, I personally have my doubts about the future of anything that comes out of the Red Chamber, much less a bill about football that could turn into a pesky international trade issue. After all, Canada would not like it if we suddenly kicked its softwood lumber industry in the teeth again. Still, one never knows how these things turn out, and even if nothing came of it, it's certainly a sign as to how many Canadians would view the NFL's intrusion into their territory.

This is not to say the NFL shouldn't do more marketing in certain border areas where American football teams have Canadian fans. We already know many Canadians in Ontario's Golden Horseshoe are Buffalo fans; it seems a smart move, then, to also market the Lions to southwestern Ontario, the Seahawks to British Columbia and the Patriots to the Maritimes. This would help build the fan bases needed for any future northward expansion, or at the very least generate revenue from now-untapped markets. It also seems reasonable to believe that, just as we suffer when the Super Bowl ends, there are Canadian football fans who suffer when the Grey Cup ends, but whom we're not reaching for some reason. As such, reaching out to them would be a good idea.

In the meantime, if the NFL is going to consider international expansion, it needs to turn not north but south. American football is gaining popularity among Mexicans, to the point where Mexican colleges have their own league and several conferences within it. Let's also not forget how well the 2005 regular-season game between the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers went: the game was a stinker, but by God they sold out Estadio Azteca. 103,467 fans in attendance. Given the huge differences on the ground in these two countries, I'd suggest that if there's money to be made in international expansion, it will be made in pesos, not in loonies.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 15, 2008 12:04 AM | TrackBack
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