Governor Paterson Warns the Buffalo Bills and New York Islanders Could Relocate
By Evan Weiner
December 2, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) -- Will there be a National Football League franchise in Orchard Park, New York in 2014? Will there be a National Hockey League franchise in Uniondale, New York in 2016? According to the soon to be former New York Governor David Paterson, there is a distinct possibility that the Buffalo Bills franchise may not be in Orchard Park very much longer and that the New York Islanders franchise will leave Uniondale in 2015 once owner Charles Wang's contract with the Nassau Coliseum is done.
Paterson will be handing the keys to the Albany state house in January to Andrew Cuomo so he is out of any negotiations to keep the Bills in Orchard Park. The Islanders situation is a local issue in the Town of Hempstead and there will be no state intervention other than the power of political persuasion to convince Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray to approve Wang's Lighthouse Project plan which would include the renovation of the Nassau Coliseum.
"The land around Nassau Coliseum is what Charles Wang would like to develop as part of what they call the Lighthouse Project, which is an expanded stadium, entertainment center and housing," said Paterson at a New York Press Club function on Wednesday night. "The Town Supervisor of Hempstead, Kate Murray, continues to reject this plan and if allowed to continue will lose the franchise."
Paterson is making the threat that Wang has not made yet. The team will move unless Murray approves the plan. Murray and Wang have gone silent on the project. That is Wang's right. As an elected official, Murray should be talking about the project or at least answering question about her reluctance to approve or just finally say no to the proposal. She needs to be held accountable either way.
"The Islanders have just broken a 14 game losing streak, they have the worst record in the NHL and lowest attendance so maybe she just doesn't want the Islanders there," said the Governor. "But it still would be an economic impact to the area she represents. We don’t have the authority as a state to supersede the town's jurisdiction so unfortunately that project is stuck and Mr. Wang is not happy about it and I think he is justifiably unhappy about it.
"There is a desire of the Shinnecock Indians to use the land to create a casino but under the Kempthrone Doctrine of 2008 (authored by Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthrone in the final year of the George W. Bush Presidency), Indian land as per the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, this is a federal act, can only be used for a casino when it is native and transitional Indian land like land that was on an Indian reservation.
"So therefore the desire of (Nassau) County Executive Ed Mangano to use that for Indian land will not work because it runs contra to the act and the guide rules known as the Kempthrone Doctrine."
The Shinnecocks have enlisted the help of former New York Senator Al D'Amato in getting a casino built and have partnered with the owner of the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings (and Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers) Mike Ilitch and his family to run a casino. Wang's options might include moving the franchise to Brooklyn or pursuing an arena near the New York Mets ballpark and the National Tennis Center in Queens.
Meanwhile the future of the Buffalo Bills in western New York is an issue that will be coming into sharper focus over the next 36 months. Ralph Wilson purchased an American Football league franchise in 1959 for $25,000 and has spent more than 50 years owning the team. Wilson is now 92 years old and apparently his family will sell the team after his death. The franchise has two years remaining on the lease in Orchard Park and would be free to go to another city once the obligation is fulfilled. Technically Wilson has had a year-to-year lease on the building since 2004. Wilson has looked to expand the Bills fan base by moving his team's pre-season training base to Rochester and regionalizing the franchise. In 2008, Wilson "rented" a series of games to Ted Rogers and Rogers Communications over a five year period to be played in Toronto. Rogers is a Canadian multiple media company that includes cable TV, broadband, TV and radio station ownership and Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays. Rogers is attempting to buy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, a group that owns the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs, the National Basketball Association's Toronto Raptors and Major League Soccer's Toronto FC.
Rogers could be a bidder for the Bills after Ralph Wilson's death. Two Los Angeles groups, trying to build football facilities in the Los Angeles area, may also be players in the bidding.
New York State is heavily invested in Wilson's Bills by virtue of a 1998 lease agreement between Wilson and Erie County which called for $63.25 million worth of improvements at the Orchard Park facility.
"The Empire State Development Corporation gives $3 million a year to help Orchard Park and to help that field," said Paterson. "Obviously, the Buffalo Bills have played some games in Toronto but Toronto doesn't seem to have the fan base to support the Bills. Ralph Wilson will never move but he is 92 years old now and the family says because of inheritance taxes they might have to sell the team.
"It's kind of perilous. (Commissioner) Roger Goodell the head of the NFL (a western New York native whose father Charles was appointed to the Senate seat held by Robert F. Kennedy after he was killed in June 1968 and the son-in-law of President George Bush's chief of staff Samuel Skinner) has told us they would not move the team without giving New York an opportunity to bring the team under a new ownership but it is a private company.
"If they get a better deal from Los Angeles or any place else that is trying to get a team, it would put us in a very difficult position."
Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo has much more pressing issues such as paying for pensions, public services and health care than keeping a football team in Orchard Park or a hockey team in Uniondale but attracting and keeping businesses is part of the governor's portfolio in all 50 states. Sports is business and New York has a financial stake in Orchard Park. Paterson though used the term as "perilous" when talking about the Bills and outright said that Charles Wang will move his Islanders hockey team once his lease is done. New York may be losing two "big-league" teams in the next five years unless deals are reached. Paterson has issued the threat for Charles Wang that he will move unless Kate Murray gets moving. There may be nothing that New York can do though to keep the Bills in Orchard Park.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org