Poloncarz deals with harsh realities of pro sports

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(WIVB) – Mark Poloncarz likes to think big. But the Erie County executive realizes that on a couple of major local issues, his bold vision might have to give way to the harsh realities of modern professional sports. 

Poloncarz would like to see the Buffalo Bills’ stadium renamed “Veterans Stadium”, now that New Era has pulled out of its seven-year deal for the naming rights. He also understands that the decision on whether to sell the stadium naming rights to another corporation is out of his hands. 

As a baseball fan who has a working knowledge of Buffalo’s days as a big-league city in the latter part of the 19th century, Poloncarz would love to see the Blue Jays play their home games at Sahlen Field this season. 

The Bisons’ parent club is without a home during the COVID19 pandemic, now that Canada has denied the Jays the right to play games in Toronto. Buffalo would be a nice alternative. But the players prefer an MLB city, and the Jays are leaning toward playing in Pittsburgh. 

“It would be nice to have a Major League team based here,” Poloncarz said late Monday morning. “To say the Yankees, Mets and Orioles were playing games right here in Buffalo,  it would be really cool to have that. I just don’t know if it’s going to happen. 

“I talked to representative of the Bisons. There’s concern about a few things associated with the baseball stadium: The lighting, the practice areas, the bullpen, and the players and team would rather be in a Major League facility.

“There’s been no ask of the county,” Poloncarz said, “though we have offered if they do come here that our department of health and emergency services would be available to assist as needed. 

“If we can offer them an alternative that works, for one year we’ve got Major League teams coming into Buffalo, even if we can’t see it, it’s kind of a neat thing. It would be the first Major League ball played in Buffalo since the late 1800s. We did have a team!”

Poloncarz was told the Blue Jays would decide by Thursday, the date of MLB’s delayed opening. As of Saturday, the Jays hadn’t ruled out playing at their spring training park in Dunedin, Fla. They were reportedly considering numerous MLB locales, including Pittsburgh. 

The Bisons have the capacity to bring their lights up to MLB standards. The county executive said a contractor was ready to do the work. But it was contingent on Toronto choosing Buffalo as the site. 

“So they’ve got it worked out from a logistical standpoint,” Poloncarz said. “They believe they could get the stadium in condition to meet the Major League standards very quickly. I understand the Major League players want to play in a Major League stadium. I was hoping that Vlad Guerrero and Bo Bichette would say, ‘Hey, Buffalo’s actually a pretty cool place to play. It’s not 100 percent Major Leagues, but it’s not like a lot of minor-league stadiums.”

As for the county-owned football stadium in Orchard Park, Poloncarz reiterated his desire to see the Bills’ home renamed for veterans. He mentioned “Veterans Stadium, honoring Bob Kalsu”, the Bill who was the only NFL player killed in Vietnan. There’s some talk of a First Responders Stadium.

“Honoring veterans, honoring first responders during this COVID crisis would be an honorable thing to do,” he said. “But it’s all in the Pegulas’ hands. I also understand they’re under economic pressure to deliver revenue for the NFL and also to pay for their expenses that they have as a team.”

The county allowed the team owners to sell naming rights as part of the 10-year lease agreement signed in late 2012. The Bills’ agreement stipulated that the venue would remain Ralph Wilson Stadium as long as the owner remained alive. 

Wilson died in March, 2014. The Pegulas kept his name on the stadium out of respect for a year, then sold the rights to New Era for seven years at $5 million a year. New Era, which laid off one-third of its local work force after receiving more than $5 million in federal stimulus, bowed out of the deal with three years remaining last week.

Poloncarz said the sale of naming rights was included in the lease to make the team more marketable in the event of a sale. Of course, the county also insisted on a non-relocation clause which ensured the Bills staying in Buffalo.

“So the Pegulas have the naming rights through the lease,” Poloncarz said. “They could only enter into a (new) contract for naming rights through the lease, which expires as to the end of the 2022 season, technically in the middle of 2023. So if they’re going to go out and sell naming rights, you’re only buying rights for basically three more years.”

Poloncarz has made it clear he would prefer not to sell the naming rights, though it’s not his call. But he seems resigned to the fact that the Pegulas, who have undertaken a major belt-tightening in their PSE enterprise in recent months, will want to continue profiting from the building’s name.

“If they do sell naming rights, I hope it’s an organization we would be proud of as a local company that has a very good track record of treating its employees well,” the county executive said. “I never had a beef with New Era until they shut down their Derby facility and laid off over 200 employees locally. I don’t want to see a company go out of business, but they were paying millions of dollars a year while laying off lots of our residents. It just didn’t seem right.”

As Poloncarz said, it’s a different world today. Wilson hated the idea of selling naming rights. The county struck the agreement that led to Rich Stadium above his objections in 1973. When the 25-year agreement lapsed in 1998, he had his own name attached to the stadium. 

Nowadays, of course, everything is for sale in sports. The more money that leagues generate, the greater the need to squeeze out every dollar. Stadium and arena names change so quickly it’s hard to keep up with them. Revenue-sharing helps Buffalo survive as a small market in the NFL, so it’s naive to think the Bills would base decisions on what’s noble and honorable.

“That’s why you have advertisement everywhere,” Poloncarz said. “You have clubs that used to be named after Van Miller and Paul Maguire and Jim Kelly now named after companies. They have the right to sell everything. If they wanted to sell the naming rights to a toilet, they could sell the naming rights to a toilet. That’s the NFL today. It’s all about money and shared revenue.”

He’s not kidding about a toilet. Late last week, a bidet company called “Tushy” made a $12.5 million offer for the naming rights to the stadium after New Era pulled out. But Poloncarz quickly flushed that notion by pointing out that under terms of the lease, “anything that embarrasses the community is dead on arrival.”

The words “New Era” will soon be removed from the stadium. For the time being, it will be the house with no name. Like a lot of Western New Yorkers, the county exec still refers to it as The Ralph. Poloncarz said the Pegulas could sell the naming rights for the remaining three years of the lease, but would have to submit it to the county and state for approval.

“Based on everything that’s going on this year, including whether there’s even going to be a football season, there may not be a name on the stadium this year,” Poloncarz said. “I don’t know. It’s in the hands of the team.

“I’m not so certain they’d want to call it Veterans Stadium if they’re planning on selling naming rights and then strip the name next year,” he said. “That would look pretty bad.”

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