This was never about a love – or even any particular sort of like – of the city of Toronto.
Jon Bon Jovi wants an NFL team, full stop, end of thought. He’s spent years cozying up to the cabal that controls the league and saving just enough cash to pay the cover.
It was expedience that led him to Canada, where he was able to build relationships with much wealthier, but less connected franchise seekers such as Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum.
It was opportunism that led other players, such as Rogers heir Edward Rogers, to join this merry, moneyed band.
It was common sense that convinced them that if they were able to grab hold of the Buffalo Bills, everyone was going to get a lot richer.
The plan hinged on two things – that the family of team owner Ralph Wilson would have no interest in keeping the club once he’d died, and that it could be quietly moved north. That was the purpose of the failed Bills in Toronto series – to acclimate everyone to the future.
As Wilson faded, the plan was growing. It eventually spun out into a massive enterprise encompassing the team, a new arena and a complementary development including condo towers, shopping and entertainment destinations, and maybe even a casino.
That was MLSE’s angle – to provide the infrastructure and venue management expertise that represented the real money tree planted in the deal.
This was why the Bills current stadium lease – which does not permit a cancellation without onerous fines before 2020 – was never a problem.
This was all going to take years to build. The Toronto-based bid group was happy to leave the team in the States until then.
Theoretically, the deal’s total value was limited only by aspiration. The NFL was only the entry point.
So full credit to the city of Buffalo. Armed only with civic pride and a great many humiliating mugshots of Bon Jovi in his big-hair days, they have undone the sort of construction project that would have given the pharaohs pause.
On Sunday, after weeks spent in the fetal position as Buffalo gave him a good kicking, Bon Jovi publicly gave up on Toronto. In an open letter published in the Buffalo News, he said that he and his partners would not move the club.
“Our objective is simple: to carry on the legacy of Ralph Wilson and make the Bills successful in Buffalo.”
Those two ideas are in direct opposition, but you get his point.
Reading the letter, a cynic might point out that it is just lawyerly and gauzy enough to provide some wiggle room. He doesn’t actually promise not to move the Bills, not in plain language. It’s conceivable he could get the franchise, wait a couple of years, gin up some fight with local government over money, then move in a great huff. That’s what Al Davis would do.
There’s also this curious line: “My family and I are prepared to make a life-changing commitment to be part of the Bills.” Presumably, he means moving to Buffalo. If so, it would probably have been better had he not made it sound like he was suggesting to the wife and kids that they all live in a utility closet at a Supermax prison.
But while the Bon Jovi group wait to hear back on their recently submitted blind bid, it’s not Buffalo that needs convincing. It’s the league itself. This public-relations contagion is in danger of spreading to Bon Jovi’s pals, people such as Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cowboys principal Jerry Jones.
Like all plutocrats, NFL owners would like to be seen as average guys who maintain their big-hearted, small-town values. That’s difficult to do when you’re screwing over a big-hearted, small town.
As such, the latest iteration of that long-running serial, ‘Will the NFL move to Canada?’ is dead. Not Walking Dead dead. Fully dead.
Asked exactly how dead, one knowledgeable observer of the process said Sunday, “I’m not sure Toronto was ever alive.”
So, how dead? Retroactively dead.
Nevertheless, the cash bid is still hanging there.
It’s a two-man race, between Bon Jovi and Buffalo Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula. A year ago, everyone involved thought the club could be had for as little as its book value: $850-million (U.S.).
It’s now likely to land in the $1.2-billion to $1.3-billion range. Add a stadium into mix and you’re looking at least a $2-billion outlay. In Buffalo, there isn’t going to a condo tower attached. Its hard, and maybe impossible, to make those numbers work in that city.
Having got the key concession from his rival, this would be a wise time for Pegula to back out. He’s already cemented his working-class hero status. It’s a little too everyman to go broke proving it.
Though it doesn’t really make financial sense any more (or, at least, not nearly as much as it would have in Toronto), you can’t see Bon Jovi and his partners turning this down now. They’ve been at this for too long.
They are you and I, in the midst of looking for a new house downtown. You start out with standards and a budget. You bid on a few things. You lose. You become unmoored from reality. Eventually, you don’t care what shape the house is in or where it is or what it costs. You just want any house.
In giving up on Toronto, that’s what Bon Jovi and his partners are left bidding on – any team, rather than the team they wanted.