Bills fans do all they can to keep team in Buffalo

The Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- Livin' on a prayer isn't part of the plan for Buffalo Bills fans.

Not content to sit back and hope for the best as their beloved NFL team is sold, they are doing everything they can to influence the next owner to keep the franchise in Buffalo.

That includes trying to raise millions of dollars as an incentive to keep the team where it is, circulating petitions and even organizing a ban on Bon Jovi music because the band's frontman is rumored to want to buy the team and move it to Canada.

''It's nothing personal,'' said Charles Pellien, one of four fans who came up with the Bon Jovi boycott last month. ''If Santa Claus was coming to Buffalo and telling us he was going to take our team to the North Pole, we would be boycotting Santa Claus.''

The flurry of activity began soon after the March death of owner Ralph Wilson, whose wishes to have the team sold rather than passed onto his family raised the possibility of the Bills leaving their home of more than 50 years. Toronto and Los Angeles are potential landing spots because owners could make more money than in Buffalo, the NFL's second-smallest market.

Fans want to make as much noise as possible, worried that staying silent while the team changes hands could register as indifference, a trait they say contributed to the Cleveland Browns' bolt to Baltimore after the 1995 season.

''They just thought somebody would do something, and there was no way it could ever be a reality that the team could move,'' said Matt Sabuda, a real estate investor and director of the Buffalo Fan Alliance. ''The last thing we'd want to see in Buffalo is a repeat of that scenario.''

Sabuda's group has plans to tap legions of Buffalo ex-pats and others for more than $100 million in no-interest financing to help a Buffalo-committed new owner. The group estimates the fan donations could save a new owner $8 million to $15 million a year in interest - the equivalent of another full level of luxury suites - and make moving from small-market Buffalo unnecessary.

The alliance has four Bills Hall of Famers: Joe DeLamielleure, James Lofton, Billy Shaw and Andre Reed on an advisory board that also includes Republican strategist Carl Forti and NBC News correspondent Luke Russert, whose Buffalo-born late father, Tim Russert, often signed off ''Meet the Press'' with ''Go Bills.''

As the alliance banks on the practical, the fan-based ''12th Man Thunder'' counts on emotion to add names to the more than 9,300 signatures on a petition that pledges loyalty to a buyer who would keep the Bills in Buffalo - and to snub anyone who doesn't.

The group also has distributed ''Bon Jovi Free Zone'' posters to bars, shops and radio stations and said nearly 200 businesses have signed on to a summerlong boycott.

''Jack FM has always liked Bon Jovi, but like you, we LOVE our Buffalo Bills,'' reads the website of one of three radio stations participating.

A spokesman for Jon Bon Jovi, who has been linked to a Toronto-based developer interested in purchasing an NFL franchise, didn't respond to requests for comment.

Other potential suitors include Donald Trump, former Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano and the family of Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs. Wilson's estate's legal team is expected to begin contacting prospective buyers in the next few weeks.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration, meanwhile, has hired a business legal expert as part of political efforts to keep the team in place. Cuomo, the Bills and Erie County also have created a 20-member ''New Stadium Working Group'' of community leaders and elected officials.

Fans remain nervous despite a non-relocation clause in the current lease with Erie County that makes it difficult for the team to move before the 2020 season. It's the deep-pocketed bidder with unknown intentions they are bracing against.

''We figured if there's something we could do, whether it was small or large, we were going to do it,'' said Pellien, a truck driver who grew up next to Ralph Wilson Stadium. ''Because if something happened and our team left and we didn't do anything, how would that make us feel?''



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