Monday, October 12, 2009

The Bills are all business

From the 12 October 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

As I was writing this column the Bills were only a few days removed from a devastating 38-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins, exemplifying how moribund the Buffalo franchise has become. As one would expect, the fans of a 1-3 team that has been outscored 123 to 61 on the season were calling for heads to roll.

All of their venting, complaining, and criticism will do no good. The Bills will continue to be the Bills that we have come to accept as the norm. There’s a reason that they haven’t been competitive enough to produce a winning season in 10 years. It’s not because they share the division with the New England Patriots. It’s not the mystical Buffalo curse. It’s capitalism.

Team owner Ralph Wilson is an old-school capitalist, meaning that profitably and shareholder value (and not touchy-feely pursuits) are paramount. So, what he sees year in and year out no doubt has him pleased. While we might see dismal football on the field, Wilson sees a good game in the books with a strong balance sheet and a healthy profit and loss statement. According to, in 1999 the team’s revenue was $102 million. In 2008, it reached $206 million, doubling in only a decade. Operating income was just as healthy over that span: despite being nearly equal in 1999 and 2008 at around $12 million, in 6 of those 10 years the income ranged from $29 million to $35 million.

Such financial success doesn’t necessarily equate to success on the field, nor should it. To someone like Ralph Wilson wins and losses don’t mean as much as they might to the fans or the team because his company – his life’s work, his greatest gamble, and his greatest success - is producing as well as it has been financially. There’s really no reason for Wilson and staff to mess with what’s working for them. The status quo on the field can be maintained because it’s making money and lots of it.

It costs money to replace coaches, institute new systems, and bring in the pricey role players that a winning team needs. Would those investments really equate to a better bottom line for the franchise? No, because from where would the revenue growth come? Surely not the fans. That’s because they are already there and as rabid as ever: Bills attire is still selling at a good clip and tickets are being purchased at record rates (for the first time in its 50-year history the Bills have had back-to-back years of 55,000 season tickets sold). That’s almost unbelievable because the team is 61-87 since the start of the 2000 season and we’re in the worst recession since the Great Depression. If those two factors won’t turn people away, nothing will. It’s apparent that no matter how good or bad the team is or how little money the fans have they will continue to worship the franchise.

And that’s probably how Wilson sees the world. He knows he also an almost captive audience, one that hasn’t abandoned the underperforming teams like those in other NFL cities (like Detroit) have. He’s making money, so why change anything? If he’s fearful of losing fans it’s easier and more cost effective to inject a little marketing into the mix than it is to make significant changes to the way of doing things. The salesmen in the Bills front office have done this quite well this century, feasting on the team’s rich history and the fans’ unmatched histrionics. Only in Buffalo, under such slick advertising efforts, could Dick Jauron return for a fourth season and people somehow pile into the Stadium in droves.

Because of that approach to corporate profitability and not team productivity, the Bills will remain pitiful for quite a while and, at this rate, they will be known as a punch-line not for their Super Bowl losses but rather for their transformation into the second coming of the Buccaneers of the 1970s and 80s.

It’s not that Ralph Wilson is evil, he’s just doing his job and he’s doing it well. Realize that capitalism is a two-way street. You, the fan, have, quite strangely, rewarded and enabled the team’s poor performance and Wilson has been more than willing to accept your hard-earned dollars for that. So, until you stop going to these poorly-played games or Ralph Wilson and his heirs stray from their fiscal and corporate conservatism, it will continue to be business as usual at One Bills Drive. And, it’s business that keeps it that way.

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