I have absolutely no sympathy for Ralph Wilson or Mike Brown as the rumors fly that they don’t appreciate the direction that the Brady vs. NFL settlement talks have been taking in putting together a new CBA. Neither man is a quality NFL owner or shows the slightest desire or ability to make his team a consistent winner.
Wilson, who is 92 years old, seems to be playing out the string of his life. He pays lip service to wanting to keep the Bills in Buffalo, but he clearly recognizes that the viability of western New York as an NFL home continues to diminish as its historically blue collar labor environment is marginalized, and the population resultingly diminishes. Buffalo is the worst market in the NFL, and when the team is sold upon Wilson’s death, I’m pretty sure the new owner will be looking to Toronto or Los Angeles.
As for Brown, he’s the son of Paul Brown, who founded the Bengals back when you didn’t have to really be all that wealthy to start an NFL team. Paul was a successful coach of the Browns for many years, and it sure helped to have Hall of Famers like Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Lou Groza, and Jim Brown. Upon founding the Bengals, the Brown magic never returned. Mike Brown is not the football man his father was, and he's also the cheapest owner in the NFL. He hires the assistant coaches - with the Head Coach having little to no say in the matter - and pays them the lowest salaries in the NFL for their peer groups. He also has always maintained the smallest scouting staff in the NFL, and the senior front office people are a bunch of Browns and Blackburns. They’re the only mom and pop team in the NFL, and that’s the biggest reason that they can never establish a consistent winning program.
Wilson and Brown voted against the 2006 CBA extension, and they reportedly stand poised to oppose whatever new framework seems to be emerging from negotiations. They don’t feel like they get enough of the overall $9-billion pie, and they therefore find the players’ piece to be onerous, where a more solid operation doesn’t find it to be so.
I lack sympathy for Wilson because he should have moved his team a decade ago. His metro area can’t effectively support the team, and the demographic information bears that out. Yes, there’s tradition in Buffalo; but tradition is dangerous insofar as it prevents us intelligent decisions in the present day. There are only about 2.1 million people within the Buffalo-Niagara Falls MSA and Rochester MSA, which are the only ones within a two-hour drive, ignoring Erie PA because it’s closer to Pittsburgh. What’s more, the economic situations of many of those 2.1 million people don’t really support the kind of pricing that other teams can employ. It’s just really tough for Buffalo to compete with other NFL cities financially.
Brown is much worse, because he and his family are just unfit to run a professional sports franchise. Whereas Buffalo’s problem is population loss, the Greater Cincinnati area has no such issue. There are about 6.7 million people living within a two-hour drive of Cincinnati, not counting the Indianapolis area, as you’ll see in this chart:
The Bengals do a horrible job of marketing themselves to these areas outside of greater Cincinnati, and it’s just because they’re being cheap. My ex-wife’s family lives in Dayton, so I’ve spent a good deal of time there. It’s only an hour drive from Cincinnati, yet you see almost nothing advertising the team. Columbus is two hours away, and is twice as big as Dayton, and it’s the same thing. People in these places are free to make up their own minds, and the Bengals aren’t going to help them do it.
There’s a lot of Steelers and Browns fans in those areas, especially Columbus, because the Bengals don’t capitalize on the geography. Columbus is 108 miles from Cincinnati, 143 miles from Cleveland, and 185 miles from Pittsburgh, and only two of the three are making much of a case there.
Pittsburgh and Cleveland, incidentally, have significantly smaller population footprints within a two-hour drive than Cincinnati does, and theirs largely overlap. Let’s say that Columbus is a contested area, and Louisville also is, to some degree, with the Colts. Cincinnati should at least have its own area, Dayton, Lexington, and Southern Ohio on lockdown. Give them 1/3 of Columbus and 1/2 of Louisville, and we’re still talking about 4.8 million people who should be pursued to be Bengals fans. When there are that many people, and you’re only trying to fill 66,000 seats ten times a year (including preseason), you can charge higher prices than if you were trying to fill twice as many seats with half as much population. Somebody ought to be engaging these people, and working toward that goal.
Obviously, If either team would put more resources into being winners, they’d also improve their financial positions. When the Bengals (rarely) win, the city gets behind them in a big way. I’m not as familiar with the attitudes of Bills fans, but I suspect it’s the same story. Both owners have been going cheap on coaches and players for so long, it’s no wonder that they don’t win.
The thing that really irks me about the Bengals and Bills, though, is that they don’t have naming-rights deals. Why the hell do they play in Paul Brown Stadium and Ralph Wilson Stadium? A lot of people get grumpy about naming rights for stadiums, but I’m sorry - it’s an industry standard practice, and only an idiot wouldn’t do it. Neither team is going to get $20 million per year, but some revenue is better than no revenue. Hell, Buffalo’s stadium was one of the first in the United States to be named for a company, as it was called Rich Stadium for many years. When the initial 25-year agreement ended in 1998, the Bills tried to get a much bigger amount of money from Rich Products and were denied. Thus was born Ralph Wilson Stadium.
If a team isn’t doing everything it can to maximize its revenue, it gets no sympathy from me when it cries poverty. Manage your business better, but for now, you can enjoy a nice glass of shut the hell up. Wilson has already said that his will calls for the team to be sold, and I suspect that the only way the Brown family keeps the Bengals after this generation is if the estate tax is repealed, or at least heavily neutered. The best thing for the Bengals and Bills franchises, though, would be to change owners and get some serious people in place who have the skills and desire to create enough financial success not to be the consistent whiners of the NFL.