Friday, February 8, 2008

In Buffalo, Football Not Merely About Dollars & Sense

“Pro football is a business.”

We hear this on talk radio and Sportscenter. As a jaded 29-year-old, I accept it, albeit through clenched teeth. Football is a business which pays its employees a tremendous amount of money to entertain millions with vicious tackles, arching throws, and hurdling runs.

This doesn’t work for you, does it? If you grew up in Buffalo, it never will.

With the recent news of the Bills playing eight games--three preseason, five regular season--over the next five seasons in Toronto, Buffalonians are being asked by Ralph Wilson to understand this as a “business decision,” one supposedly made for the franchise’s long-term economic viability in the Queen City. The problem with this is that Buffalo’s passionate fan base has always ignored the Bills as merely a business.

The team exists as a piece of an entire region, emotionally connected to generations. Fathers raised their sons in front of Jack Kemp, Cookie Gilchrist, and Elbert Dubenion; those sons raised their children cheering for the likes of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed. Through each generation, fans have been taught to take Bills games personally, to understand a win as not just a victory for the team, but for the city itself. It was easier to cheer when the AFL or AFC titles were popping up every 25 years or so. Now, with a so-called “dying economy,” local legions still consistently fill a 73,000-seat stadium for a franchise whose last playoff appearance (against Tennessee) scarred a new generation of fans too young to be traumatized by Super Bowl XXV.

Still, this isn’t enough. Our team is struggling financially, in need of new streams of revenue. Local families have never gathered around televisions in Hamburg or South Buffalo to point at how many corporate sponsors Ralph Wilson Stadium entertains. Now, we’re being asked to accept this economic dearth as a major reason the team we’ve lived and died with is being dangled above the tongue of a Toronto billionaire.

When I was nine years old, I didn’t care how many luxury boxes were available at Rich Stadium; I was too busy making a sign for Cornelius Bennett with a wooden bed slat. When I was 10, it wasn’t a strategic business decision to hate “The Ickey Shuffle.” When I was 11, I didn’t care how much money Ronnie Harmon made; I just hoped he wasn’t getting paid for dropped passes in Cleveland. Finally, when I was 12, I didn’t close my eyes and pray for Scott Norwood as a valued employee. I simply hoped, with one kick, he’d become a local icon.

As much more than a business, Buffalo football welcomed my friends to open their trunks and drink canned beer in 20-degree weather before their exhibitions. It’s an emotional industry that specialized in stress-inducing Sundays and Monday nights, destroying the stomach lining of locals since 1960. It’s a company whose intense action made my mother scream in 1989, made my sister cry in 1991, and enticed my father to buy sugar cereal in 1998. And, since opening its doors, its customers have been tremendously loyal through weather, strikes, embarrassing rosters, more embarrassing losses, and Super Bowl misfortune we--as consumers--are forced to relive in bar hecklings and on ESPN for the rest of our lives.

In an NFL boardroom, full of lapelled tycoons who forgot what this sport means to regions such as ours years ago, this is a cold business of dollars and sense. In Buffalo, though, football will never be considered just a business.

If it was, Ralph, it would’ve closed long ago.