The Buffalo Bills aren’t leaving St. John Fisher College anytime soon.
Rumors be darned, Bills Managing Partner and President Russ Brandon, coach Sean McDermott, Fisher President Gerard Rooney, and Greg Connors of Connors & Ferris, the main training camp title sponsor, are all in agreement that the just completed 18th training camp on the leafy Pittsford campus .
“I don’t know where they’re coming from, other than camp is a little bit shorter this year, so I understand that,” Brandon said in an exclusive interview with the Democrat and Chronicle. “We just signed a new agreement in October, a five-year extension with Fisher. We’re committed to Rochester, it’s a very important market to us, we’re committed to St. John Fisher, and we look forward to a partnership here for many, many years to come.”
Yes, the Bills are contractually obligated to train at Fisher through 2021, though all it takes is team owner Terry Pegula’s name on a certified check to buy out the remaining four years of the contract. Just don’t expect that to happen.
McDermott said as much at the start of camp. He believes that taking a team away for training camp, which was the case in his previous two NFL stops at Philadelphia and Carolina, has great value.
“I love going away,” McDermott said. “It’s a bonding time. I’ve met most of these players, but I don’t know them all well. It’s a chance for me to know not who they are on the field, but have conversations in the cafeteria, walking to a car, walking to whatever. I’m excited to be here. This is a great setup here at St. John Fisher.”
And then Tuesday, just before the Bills began their final practice here, McDermott reiterated his thoughts, saying, “I want to thank the fans and the staff here at St. John Fisher College for the time and effort it took in putting on camp. It’s a little bittersweet leaving today. We look forward to getting back next year.”
Brandon mentioned that the shorter camp sent the first warning flare into the air that the Bills might be considering ending their arrangement to train at his alma mater. The fact that only one night practice was scheduled, and that the majority of the workouts were held at the less-than-ideal time of 8:45 a.m. further fueled the belief that the team was greasing the skids for its imminent departure. Lastly, there’s a beautiful new practice field at One Bills Drive which now gives the Bills as much room to train there as they have at Fisher, and the league-wide trend shows that 21 of the 32 NFL teams now conduct training camp at their home facility.
These were all flash points to ignite the rumor mill, but no one in a position of authority believes that when the moving vans pulled off campus Tuesday, they weren’t going to be returning next summer, and for several summers after that.
The main reason why the Bills transferred their training camp from rural SUNY Fredonia to Fisher in 2000 was to regionalize the franchise, and that business model has not changed. The Bills rely heavily on fans outside Buffalo and Erie County, and being in Rochester has helped expose the brand to all of Western and Central New York.
Brandon still maintains between 15 and 20 percent of the game-day crowds at New Era Field come from the Rochester region, and there is always a need to continue cultivating corporate sponsorship relationships because companies come and go; there’s perpetual turnover in who advertises with the team, and who owns luxury suites.
“There’s always more to do. From our standpoint, we can do a better job of getting into the marketplace, we can make sure we’re working closely with our stakeholders both at the corporate level as well as our fan base,” Brandon said of Rochester. “This is a tremendous fan base for us, it’s only 70 miles down the road and we feel we need Rochester to be a viable organization in today’s NFL economics.”
Fisher's Rooney knows this, and it’s one of the reasons he’s confident the team will maintain its summer home on his 154-acre campus.
“I would say there’s nothing indicating that they won’t return,” said Rooney, who became president of the college in 2015, following in the footsteps of Katherine Keough and Donald Bain, the two other presidents who have served during the Bills’ tenure at Fisher.
Rooney certainly hopes the Bills stay because the relationship with the team has been a wondrous success for the college. Former Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. donated millions of dollars to Fisher to help fund the building and/or upgrading of the School of Education and the main athletic center, both of which now bear his name.
The athletic facilities are as good as you will find anywhere at the NCAA Division III level. Fisher’s endowment has more than doubled in the past decade, enrollment is up nearly 50 percent since the start of 2000, and the school’s sports management major has flourished as many students have worked internships with the Bills and other pro sports organizations. Without the Bills, there would not have been this meteoric growth.
“Mr. Wilson’s philanthropy is well-documented, but it also reached out here to Rochester and what he was able to achieve here,” said Brandon. “It’s been a great benefit to the college, a true win-win situation for both organizations.”
Rooney recalled Keough’s original vision in bringing the Bills to Fisher was that, “First and foremost, it would be an academic partnership that would benefit Fisher students. It has been ever since and remains impactful today. It has become so much more than any of us thought it could be. We had some students from Syracuse and Buffalo, but we have so many more today. When you look at the overall impact, it has seen Fisher grow not only in the physical plant, but the exposure that the camp has brought us. Fisher’s name has become more of a household name in the region.”
Don Jeffries, a Fisher trustee who is also President and CEO of Visit Rochester, said, “The Bills have brought notoriety. St. John Fisher is certainly breaking the mold in that other institutions’ applications and enrollment are down, but Fisher is looking at its largest freshman class ever.”
Connors, whose law firm has been the title sponsor of training camp for several years, agreed that having the Bills at Fisher not only helps the visibility of the school, it shines a light on Rochester.
“Rochester has a great legacy in terms of being relevant with golf, and some other sports, but when the Bills come to town, it creates a whole other vibe and energy,” Connors said. “When you’re looking at ESPN or NFL Network and it talks about training camp, it talks about Rochester, New York. If that were to leave, as a Western New York, Rochester guy, it would sting a little bit. But I really think the Bills’ organization, the Pegulas, Coach McDermott, they see the benefit of being here.”
As far as what the Bills being at Fisher means economically to the area, Jeffries admitted there is minimal impact. Some of the bars and restaurants in Pittsford see a bump as players’ families come to town and spend a few days. But most of the fans who flock to Fisher are from the Rochester area, and almost all the rest come from the surrounding region – Buffalo, Syracuse, Ithaca, Binghamton, Albany – where it’s part of a day trip.
“It’s mostly local traffic, it’s not a huge draw,” said Jeffries. “It’s an exciting time to be here for our locals, but it doesn’t have an impact for the restaurants, the dry cleaners, those types of things. But we’re always happy to see them.”
To that end, it seems no one would be happy to see them go. The Bills have become a summer institution in Rochester, even though the time they spend here may be less than what it once was.
“I think it would be a huge disappointment,” said Bob McJury of Fairport regarding the possibility of the Bills leaving town. “You can tell by the crowds that come out here, they love them and support them. I think it’s great for people from Syracuse, Ithaca, you meet people from everywhere here, so it would be a shame if they left.”
Teresa Nicoletti, originally from Holley and now a resident in Gates, said she became a fan of the team because of her visits to camp.
“I just recently started going to games, probably about three years ago, and coming to Fisher makes it more personal for fans,” she said. “It made me more of a fan, coming to Fisher, that’s for sure. If they were to leave Fisher, it would absolutely suck. There’s no other words to put it.”