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Bills CEO covers range of topics

Posted Jun 23, 2011

Bills CEO Russ Brandon has been making the rounds this week with a string of interviews with local media. His most telling came Thursday morning when he addressed far more than just the club’s new uniform unveiling on Friday night. Brandon addressed negotiations for a new lease agreement with Erie County, the ability for Buffalo to compete with larger market clubs in the future and the AEG Group in Los Angeles that has plans to build an NFL ready stadium in California. Here are his comments.

On the uniform launch event …
We are excited about it.  It has been about an 18-month long process.  I think people will be really excited about it.  We’ve got a lot going on tomorrow night.  Right now we have distributed over 17,000 tickets so I think people are pretty stoked about it.  Lots open at 4:30.  We will have tailgating.  The gates open at 5:45 pm.  We have a lot of interactive games and events for kids and families.  Then we have the uniform launch with a performance from the Tom Sartori Band along with pyro – fireworks.  And then we will have the debut of the 2010 highlight film followed by the movie Blind Side.

On deciding to change the uniforms …
It has been a combination of a lot of things.  We listened to our fans.  We have done a lot of research on this and as I have mentioned this is a long process to go through.  We just wanted to get back to our storied tradition while we still highlight our brand.  I think people will be very excited about it.  The uniform that we are currently in served us very well.  We had a lot of positive feedback with the throwbacks over the past 5-6 years.  I think a combination of our fans and everyone internally and Mr. Wilson, we thought it was just time to make a change.  We didn’t have a lot of success in those uniforms and it is time to move on.

On who will be modeling the uniforms …
We are going to have a lot of fun with that.  We are going to honor some of our local military in the Wounded Warrior program.  A program that we are tied into with the alumni.  That is really their main benefit for the year.  It is going to be very exciting from that standpoint to have the local military tied in and have some season ticket holder involvement as well.

On ticket sales …
We have tried to keep business as usual throughout the course of the year across the business units.  Season ticket holders just had the opportunity to purchase individual tickets over the past week.  Season ticket sales have been going on since the beginning of the year along with our renewal process.  All of that is going on fairly well.  We are looking forward to having some type of resolution in the near future where people have a sense that they know we are playing football.  Overall we have been very pleased with the progress on the ticket side.

On the potential of sellouts before individual game tickets go on-sale …
We are moving along pretty good in our first couple of games with Oakland and New England.  We may be in that type of position for those games.

On the owners’ meetings …
What I will say is that the one point of optimism is that you have both principles speaking.  They are negotiating.  They are talking.  Anytime you are in that type of environment it has got to be viewed as a positive.  That is what I have taken out of it.  You had the litigation phase and any time you have that you really want to get back to the negotiating table and I think that is what we have with both principles there and I think we need to view that as a positive. 

On Mr. Wilson voting against the current CBA back in 2006 …
It is difficult for me to talk about it, because we are mandated not to speak on it.  Like I said before the optimism is based on the fact that we are back negotiating and I think that is a positive.

On Mr. Wilson and the last CBA voting process …
I think that once everyone went through the process and saw where it came out from that standpoint I don’t want to say anyone was right or wrong but the model wasn’t obviously working when you look at what happened two years later with the CBA.  So I think from that standpoint, the positive is that we work toward a model that works for everybody and the league can flourish like it has for the last 40 years and have it flourish for another 40 years.

On Mike Florio’s comments regarding the future of small market teams and the difficulty they may have in competing in the future NFL climate …
When you talk about that, people have been painting a not so rosy picture for the 15 years I have been here.  From our standpoint, our focus is on keeping this franchise viable.  That is my main responsibility along with our staff’s.  That’s all apart of regionalization.   I know you have heard that buzz word for years on end.  But it has really been the lynch pin to the future of our franchise.  Rochester has obviously proven to be a tremendous asset to us across all business platforms.  And training camp is there and that has proven to be a tremendous model.  Our support from the Rochester region is immense.  Though it came with a lot of criticism that is the exact focus on what the Toronto relationship is about.  When you look at the region from up to Toronto through Rochester back down to Buffalo and the Southern Tier you are one of the largest markets in the league when you put that all together.  As we mentioned at the opening press conference, it was as much about bringing the fans to Ralph Wilson Stadium from the southern Ontario marketplace as it was the initiative to bring the brand above the border.  That has proven to be very positive for us.  In two years we have had a 44 percent increase in season ticket holders from southern Ontario coming down to Ralph Wilson Stadium.  That is about keeping this franchise here, it is about keeping this franchise viable.  And that has been the impetus from our standpoint since day 1. 

On the future of the Bills Toronto Series …
We have had a great relationship with Rogers and our folks up there.  It is definitely a part of our long-term thinking.  We knew it was a long-term agreement and it is going to take awhile to build a brand in a new marketplace.  When you have a marketplace of over five million people there is a lot to do and a lot of different brands in the sports scene up there.  We looked at it from a very narrow prism that long-term it has got to be a part of our region and really should be a part of our region in every aspect of our business.  It is a very important marketplace. 

On the percentage of ticket sales from Toronto and from Rochester …
Rochester has long been around the 14-15 percent mark when you look across all platforms.  The southern Ontario marketplace has just inched past that over the past year.  It is very important to us and important to grow our business relationships up there.  Back 5-10 years ago no one thought we would sell 160 suites, that we would sell 188 club suites in the new NFL so to speak.  We were able to accomplish that by regionalizing.  Rochester is a very large piece of our business on the suite side.  And that’s part of the growth we are looking for from the Toronto marketplace as well.

On whether this plan will work 10-15 years from now and whether the Bills can still compete with everyone else in the NFL …
Absolutely.  We don’t let sand get under our shoes.  From the standpoint of growing our business our marketplace has been tremendously supportive over the past decade – really forever.  We need to continue to reach out and continue to regionalize.  When you look at this region in totality it is one of the top regions in the league.  There is no reason we can’t compete in every phase of our business.  We over-index in every phase of our business now.  There is no reason for us and everyone in our organization to feel that way.  I am from this region, I have been here 15-20 years, I plan to be here 15-20 more with the franchise.

On the future of the franchise …
I think our franchise is very healthy from the standpoint of the nuances we just mentioned related to our business.   We have to work hard here in Buffalo to sell tickets to sell suites to sell sponsorships.  As I mentioned I think we are one of the over-indexing teams in the league for the size of our marketplace and what we are able to accomplish from a business standpoint.  But we need to continue to keep the building full, to keep the suites sold, and to continue to drive our sponsorship revenue. It is very important because we are a volume business.  We are very affordable and we are very affordable because we are very volume-oriented.  We have a large stadium.  We have a lot of premium products and they need to stay sold.  That is part of our job off the field and that is part of our job on the field.  We haven’t had tremendous success over the last decade.  That’s well-documented.   But we have had very good success off the field.   We have sold out 85 percent of our games in the 2000s.  We were at 67 percent in the 90s.  We have a model and a fan passion here that deserves a winner and I think we have the right people in place with Buddy Nix and with Chan Gailey and with some of the new hires that Buddy has made.  We are trying to bring winners to the organization.  When you look at what we have done with bringing in Doug Whaley from the Steelers as our assistant GM, Chuck Cook from the Kansas City Chiefs during their heyday running their college department, Tom Gibbons coming back after being part of the growth out in San Diego and Chan’s won everywhere he has been.  So we are very excited about the future of our franchise on the field.

On a succession plan being in place …
That is not for me to discuss.  That is about Mr. Wilson.  My responsibility is to our staff and keeping this franchise humming.  It has been well-documented that Mr. Wilson is committed to this region and committed to Buffalo.  That is what we are focused on. 

On the AEG group contacting five teams and whether they contacted the Bills …
Not that I am aware of.  They did not contact me.

On if they would call and the answer we would have …
We are very happy in Buffalo and we are focused on Buffalo.  Right now there is so much focus on labor and so much focus because we have not had the normal offseason that people are reaching for so much information that it is almost like the Da Vinci Code.  There are so many different stories going on about everything.   Our focus is right here in Buffalo – point blank, period.  That is where it is going to be for many years to come.

On the stadium lease
Chris (Collins) and I have had some conversations.  We are both going to be very focused with our organization and with the county moving forward, once we understand the CBA.  We are just going to sit back and see what happens when the CBA comes out.  There is no reason to reach or think or pretend that we know what is in the documents moving forward.  So, once we have a clear awareness of what the runway is with the CBA, we will sit down and have some meaningful discussions.

On training camp at St. John Fisher and if the Bills can still hold camp this year and when that agreement is up
It is up at the end of this year.  We have had quite a few talks with the president, Don Bain.  Fisher has been a tremendous partner.  Our focus right now has been getting through the CBA, but we have gone through all the preparations for training camp much like we would in any other year.  Fisher has been very gracious to say, ‘Once you know, we will be ready to go.’  So, we plan on going to Fisher, we are preparing like we are going to Fisher.  Fisher has gone through another face lift this year with some renovations there.  So, we have been working through that process. They have added a pretty significant track and field program.  There will be some change for us that we are working through right now.  Our anticipation is – we have been at St. John Fisher for 11 years and we plan on being at Fisher for a long time.

On the stadium naming rights
I think when you look at naming rights, it’s any easy answer for people to say, ‘Why don’t you sell your naming rights?’  I don’t want to get into too many business perspectives of it, but it is not as simple as saying, ‘hey, just throw up your naming rights and you get this amount of revenue.’  If you really broke down naming rights deals across the board, I think they would look a lot different to you than actually what they may be.  Our Toronto agreement is very focused on that type of environment.  We have sold the naming rights to our fieldhouse recently with one of the local partners.  I think we are very well-positioned with our revenues and well-positioned with our corporate sponsorships, where we are pleased overall with the categories that we are in. 

On extending the Toronto deal
We have had discussions with them right now about where the agreement is with the CBA and with the game this year.  Our focus right now is playing the Redskins up in Toronto.  They have some new leadership there, obviously Phil Lind is their vice chairman and Keith Pelley is their new president.  Keith and I have had some conversations relative to our current agreement.  We anticipate having some discussions moving forward. 

On the league’s discussions on reducing blackouts
I think all that was was a discussion and a proposal of a discussion.  That’s really all that it is right now.  We are very focused on the volume aspect of our business, being a larger facility to stay affordable. That is something that we are very focused on and selling every seat in that building.

On the new fan behavior policy changes
I think some people think we came up with this overnight, this was a couple-year process.  In talking to our fans through focus groups, through surveys and this no smoking policy inside the gates was really something that people were very focused on.  It is just another element in trying to improve the experience at the stadium.  When it comes to the lots, we are really working with the league on best practices.  We are one of the few teams, really one of the only teams in the league that were beyond four hours.  We are just trying to be compliant with the league on the four hour policy.  Some teams are three hours.  It is just another variable in trying to improve the experience and we will work through it with our fans and they have been very supportive.