At the casino, they found Reed, who was in town to celebrate his imminent induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, sitting in a booth at the back of the casino’s main floor. He had reached out to Sabuda to join the Fan Alliance’s advisory board, along with a number of prominent local businessmen, and Luke Russert, son of Tim (who used to sign off from Meet the Press on Sundays in the fall with “Go Bills!”).
“That guy would be throwing a fit,” Reed said of the elder Russert. He wore a black Under Armour shirt and sunglasses perched backward on his ears and, even at 50, appeared to be among the casino’s younger visitors. The men began to talk about the Toronto bid, which was rumored to be serious and growing in size.
“Man, fuck Bon Jovi!” Reed said. “You might as well just take this city, throw it in the river, and let it go down Niagara Falls.”
The big sports news that morning had come from another Rust Belt town, when LeBron James announced he was returning to play basketball in Cleveland. That declaration had lifted the spirits of some Buffalonians—“I very much identify with Cleveland,” Cinelli said of the town that lost its NFL franchise to relocation in the ’90s, only to get another one after fans raised hell. “To have a native son make a conscious decision to return there is awesome”—and depressed others. “We were the new Pittsburgh, until LeBron went back to Cleveland,” said Michael Culmo, the lead singer of a cover band that had joined the boycott. On a large screen behind the bar, ESPN was broadcasting a tweet from the Cleveland Browns’ jet-setting rookie, Johnny Manziel, referring to James as “my guy.”
“Who the fuck is Johnny Manziel?” Reed asked. “LeBron ain’t your guy! You’re not ‘Johnny Football.’ You’re ‘Johnny Rookie Bitch.’ ” Reed said he didn’t think a blue-collar town like Buffalo, which he thought wears an even truer shade of denim than Cleveland, would stand for Manziel’s antics. “They’d boo that motherfucker outta here,” he said. “The fans would put him in his place.”
Reed and the Fan Alliance leadership were soon joined by Joe DeLamielleure, another advisory-board member and Bills Hall of Famer, who had blocked for O.J. Simpson. (It is with resignation that Bills fans acknowledge their two biggest claims to football fame are O.J. Simpson and losing four straight Super Bowls.) “Did you hear? That Toronto threat is big-time?” Reed said.
“Yeah, but here’s the thing: In Toronto, you can’t have tailgating,” DeLamielleure replied, referring to an Ontario law banning parking-lot barbecues.
“I wouldn’t put it past them though, with their group and their reach, if they passed a new provincial law,” Sabuda said.
“Now, I ain’t gonna lie to you,” Reed said. “One year I went up to Toronto, and man, I had a good-ass time up there.”
“Off the record,” Sabuda said.
“Off the record—I had a great time,” Reed said. When I asked if he would continue being a part of the franchise as he had in Buffalo, he paused, then admitted that his allegiance to the city wasn’t ironclad: “If they paid me.”
In retirement, DeLamielleure has been one of the leading advocates for the mental health of retired NFL players—a laboratory estimated that he had received 215,000 blows to the head in his football career—but had grown pessimistic that any bad press could harm the NFL. “Let me ask you: Who are the three most recent players to shoot themselves in the chest?” DeLamielleure was referring to three recent suicides by NFL players who had suffered head injuries during their playing careers; no one at the table could name them all. “The players are interchangeable parts,” he said. “The owners think cities are interchangeable parts, too.”
For wealthy Americans—there are no foreign NFL owners, yet—a professional-football franchise is one of the safest investments around. In the modern era, no team has ever sold for less money than its purchase price, and most are wildly profitable. Last year, Deadspin published leaked financial documents for the Carolina Panthers showing the team’s owner had made $112 million in the previous two years.
The Bills are in the middle of the NFL pack, attendance-wise, but even as the league presents itself as America’s lunch-pail sport, it doesn’t run on packed nosebleed sections. (The cheapest ticket for a Giants game costs $110; the best seats top $700.) NFL fortunes are now built on corporate sponsorships and luxury suites: Ralph Wilson Stadium, the league’s sixth-oldest, has fewer suites than almost any other and fewer wealthy patrons able to occupy them. Buffalo has no Fortune 500 companies.