The Glorious Plight of the Buffalo Bills
Football touches all on game-day weekend in Western New York
BY BEN AUSTEN ON NOVEMBER 9, 2012
On the same night as the screening of Almost a Dynasty, 150 other Bills fans were meeting a couple blocks away, again at the main bar of the Hotel Lafayette. They were there as part of the Buffalo Fan Alliance, a group of businessmen, politicians, and other local powerbrokers who had organized to keep the Bills in Buffalo. Brian Cinelli, a 36-year-old trial lawyer, and Matt Sabuda, a 30-year-old real estate investor, had been talking in the offseason about the looming uncertainty created by Ralph Wilson’s silence when they realized there had to be thousands of Bills fans like them — professional types.
There had to be a way to monetize the depth of their love. The NFL no longer allowed equity ownership of teams, having grandfathered in the Green Bay Packers model. So Brian and Matt had the idea to create a fund, contributed to by regional businesses and fans, that would lend money to the owners of the Bills, whoever they might be, on extremely favorable terms. The money might be loaned well below market interest rates, or with the potential of debt forgiveness, but it would come as well with restrictions on relocation. Buffalo would never top other cities’ revenue streams, but a stay-put buyer could justify a highest bid by showing these savings on the debt side. With the nonagenarian Wilson in and out of the hospital, Brian and Matt wasted no time forming a board consisting of executives from various local institutions, and the group had already retained a national law firm that specializes in deals with the NFL. They were introducing their plans that night at the Hotel Lafayette, where they were joined by a U.S. Representative Brian Higgins, who said he “represents a Bills constituency,” as well as by scores of other young professionals. Matt said, “We sent out word, and people told us, ‘This is the Bills. What can we do to help? We’ll give whatever you need.’”
Brian stressed that this first gathering of the Buffalo Fan Alliance was being held at the perfect location. The recently renovated Hotel Lafayette stood as an emblem of Buffalo’s former grandeur, its collapse, and the promise of revival. Built in an opulent French-renaissance style for the Pan-American Expo, it opened late, in 1904, a jewel in booming Buffalo, one of the nation’s most extravagant hotels. By the end of the century, however, it had turned into just another scary relic, functioning, if at all, as a boarding house for single-room occupants. In 2009, a Buffalo developer named Rocco Termini bought the hotel for $500,000, spending $45 million on a renovation that attempted to restore or re-create the building’s art deco crystal ballrooms, its marble columns, and 110 stained-glass windows. Like the other big redevelopment projects in town, the hotel was careful to highlight any ties to Buffalo’s heyday. The Lafayette opened only in June, but there were 1,000 people drinking and dining in its refurbished bars and restaurants the night of the Bills Fan Alliance event. Termini had created a vertically integrated wedding center — the hotel included banquet halls, a gown shop, a florist, and a bakery that made both wedding cakes and, as Termini insisted I grab, Buffalo Bills cookies. Four weddings were taking place that weekend alone, and 250 were already booked through the next year. All of the 115 apartment units on the top floors were already rented.
As Termini showed off the Lafayette’s many wonders, he reminded me that Tom Brady had cast aspersions on the city’s lodgings last season. “I don’t know if any of you guys have ever been to the hotels in Buffalo,” Brady said in a press conference when illustrating the lengths his father had gone to watch his games, “but they’re not the nicest places in the world.” Termini had offered a luxury suite to Brady’s parents for this weekend’s game, free of charge. He took me upstairs to one of the rooms. A mural of the Pan-American Expo covered one wall. A platform bed faced a gas fireplace and a full-length mirror. Termini described the décor as a blend of classic and contemporary. I imagined Brady’s mother and father enjoying their stay there. Termini said Mayor Brown even offered to throw in a key to the city if the Bradys showed up. But they never did.