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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Will it still be called Ralph Wilson Stadium after the Bills move?

By Dick Hirsch

Sometimes it is tempting to be ahead of the curve, to write the story before the news even breaks. This is one of those times, so I ask the following question and welcome your suggestions:

After the Buffalo Bills pack up and leave for Toronto, what are we going to do with the stadium? Is there an appropriate reuse? Or will Erie County be left with a lasting monument to the business practices and civic loyalties of professional sports owners? Will a building that once inspired pride eventually become a dingy relic that will be imploded, bulldozed and remediated, the costs to be paid by future generations? When they do vacate, I hope the county officials don’t hold endless meetings, debating potential solutions, wasting precious time while letting the place molder and the memories become increasingly bitter.

I am serious about this. Just the other day, since I am a season ticket holder, I received a letter from the Bills explaining how I could buy tickets to the two games the Bills will play in Toronto in 2008.

“Final ticket prices have yet to be announced,” the letter explained, “but it is expected that prices will range from $75 to $300 per game.” The Bills will play a total of eight games in Toronto over the next five years.

Incidentally, the Bills still insist on describing the venture as a strategic move to strengthen the franchise in Buffalo. “Our initiative in part of our continued regionalization effort aimed at keeping the franchise viable in Western New York,” the letter claims.

I have not encountered a single person who believes that statement.

The reality of the plan really came as no surprise. There have been other discussions in past years about moving the franchise to other venues that beckoned. They turned out to be brief dalliances which were never consummated, but we all knew that the owner, Ralph Wilson, would eventually find a way to cash in on his investment, reaping an enormous profit.

Along with thousands of others, I have considerable emotional equity invested in the Bills. What do we get out of the deal, just the memories? I always suspected that Wilson would break our hearts one day, leaving us muttering about the past and wondering what to talk about on Mondays each football season. While I am disappointed at the prospect, my own reaction to the Toronto plan surprised me; it isn’t as intense as I expected. I don’t feel shattered and bereft.

It’s a business. It has always been a business, even in the formative days in the cruddy confines of War Memorial Stadium. But with each passing season, it has grown more and more businesslike. The short term goal may be to score points on Sunday afternoons, but the long term goal is to make a profit, as enormous a profit as possible, despite being required to pay players those staggering salaries. Wilson paid $25,000 for the franchise which has an estimated value of over $820 million.

The Bills have a dedicated fan base, not because of the greatness of the team over the years, but because it has always been the hottest ticket in the area. I spent a Sunday in San Francisco a few years ago, with the 49ers at home against the Giants, certainly a confrontation of longtime rivals. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention, not at the hotel, not in the restaurant, not in Golden Gate Park. The 49ers are just one of so many attractions in San Francisco.

In Buffalo, the Bills---even in the bad years---have always been revered, occupying a special pedestal in the community. They haven’t even made the playoffs in eight years and still they sell out the place and command untold civic esteem. People perennially seek some solace talking about Marv and Andre, Bruce and Darryl, Thurman and Jimbo, all guys with last names that were never needed to identify them. It will never be the same for future Bills in Toronto. They won’t be idolized, even though there are apparently thousands of people there eager to reserve tickets for 300 bucks.

I digress. Back to the question. What can be done with that county owned concrete hulk in Orchard Park, covering 197 acres? When I started writing this, I pictured a landfill, but I’ve upgraded. How about a Hall of Fame for Former Owners including Walter O’Malley, Robert Irsay and Art Modell, who became villains in Brooklyn, Baltimore and Cleveland when they moved their teams?



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