Buffalo Reassesses Bid for Major League Team
Investors in Washington, Denver and three cities in Florida are, with some reservations, ready to spend up to $140 million to acquire and establish a Major League Baseball expansion franchise.
But in Buffalo, Robert Rich Jr. and his group of investors have a lot of questions. And unless they hear the right answers when the National League Expansion Committee comes to visit next month, Rich said the field in baseball’s expansion race will narrow by one contestant.
“I would hate to drop out of this,” Rich said. “I’ve been at it for eight years. We’ve got blood, sweat and tears in this, plus an awful lot of money.”
Rich announced his intention to bring major-league baseball to Buffalo in 1983, when he purchased then then-Class AA Buffalo Bisons. So a decision to withdraw would be akin to camping out for World Series tickets for a week, then getting out of line just before reaching the window because television is cheaper and affords a better view.
Rich said it’s a matter of economics, business and civics. In recent years, Buffalonians have supported and enjoyed minor-league baseball in record-setting numbers. Rich wants to know whether baseball’s runaway financial situation will make it impossible for him to operate a viable, competitive franchise without having to charge ticket prices the citizenry can’t or won’t pay.
With help from the accounting firm of KMPG Peat Marwick, Rich has been trying to figure that out. But, he said last week, “I’m holding off until I can verify with either the expansion committee or some of the financial people from Major League Baseball as to whether my assumptions are correct.
“If in fact major-league baseball would be unaffordable for this community, we would certainly withdraw. If the work that we have done would demonstrate that the fans who heretofore have had season tickets, or families that have come out to the park on a weekly basis, would now have to curtail their live professional baseball watching to a once-a-summer trip, I don’t think that’s in the best interest of this community.
“We’ve spent over $1 1/2 million just in the last year on this pursuit. So I have an investment here not only on behalf of our investors but our community. I’d hate to drop out if, in fact, there is something that baseball can share with us -- that something’s on the horizon that would turn this thing around. But if that’s not to be, if there is no plan and if this situation is out of control, then I don’t see where we would have any alternative.”
To demonstrate that he is serious, Rich and his wife and business partner, Mindy, in mid-December submitted a letter to all local media that said in part: “While we remain committed to bringing major-league baseball to Buffalo, we have said that we do not believe in baseball at any cost.” In mid-January, the Riches asked the Buffalo Common Council to wait until he meets with the Expansion Committee before deciding whether to spend $2.5 million on blueprints for expansion of Pilot Field from 20,900 seats to 41,530.
Those moves raised eyebrows nationally and concerns locally, where government officials are torn between their understanding of Rich’s position and their desire for a ballclub.
“It took a lot of guts to say” he was willing to withdraw, Common Council Majority Leader Eugene M. Fahey said. “I think he is right to articulate these concerns, and I don’t think he’s using it as a way to back out.”
But he expressed disappointment with the Riches’ request that the council delay action on the stadium plan. “I don’t like doing something that gives the other communities (in contention for a franchise) something to hang their hat on,” he said.
Mayor James Griffin has an acute understanding of the situation. A year after taking office in 1978, he was among a large group of civic and business leaders who bought a Class AA team and moved it to Buffalo. (Rich acquired the team in 1983, and subsequently upgraded it to Class AAA.) The mayor still owns season tickets.
The Riches “are being cautious and I don’t blame them for that,” Griffin said. “I have seats that cost $7 each. For major-league ball, that seat might cost $15. The average guy might not have that money for a season ticket. We’re a blue-collar town, a working-class town.”
But Bob Rich, Griffin and Fahey said the region is surviving the recession fairly nicely because of free trade with Canada. And, although Rich and the city have been haggling over a lease for Pilot Field, there is little doubt about government and community support for baseball.
The city has sold $26.1 million in bonds (the money is in escrow) that would be used to finance the expansion of Pilot Field if it is awarded a team. And for his part, Rich said his group made a “firm offer” of $100 million for an existing club in August. He declined to identify the club, but the point is “the money is there for the acquisition.”
Besides Rich, Buffalo’s ownership group includes Jeremy Jacobs, chairman and chief executive officer of Delaware North Companies Inc. Delaware North owns the Boston Garden and Jacobs separately owns the Boston Bruins. Members of the Knox family, which owns the Buffalo Sabres, also are involved.
As for the area’s interest in baseball, the Bisons have drawn more than 1.1 million fans in each of the last three seasons. They have about 4,000 season-ticket holders who hold some 9,000 seats. There are about 21,000 others who each have made a $25 refundable deposit that will make them eligible for a major-league season-ticket lottery.
“I think Buffalo is a proven entity,” Rich said. “To me it’s the lowest risk. When you look at the (attendance) results in all sports -- the Bills, Sabres and Triple A baseball -- it’s a city that’s proven it’s sports crazy.”
But these positives may be neutralized by Rich’s public campaign of caution. Asked whether he is concerned that it might have a negative impact on his bid, he gave a reply in which he virtually talks Buffalo right out of the expansion picture.
And given that Rich said “I don’t think you can deny” that Buffalo is a small market, the most important question is: Why would it be in baseball’s interest to expand to Buffalo?
“It may not be,” Bob Rich said.