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Carucci Take2: Relocation talk nothing new in Bills’ pursuit of new stadium

WGRZ Bills Insider Vic Carucci lends perspective on negotiations for a new stadium in Orchard Park.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — History has a way of repeating itself.

The Buffalo Bills want a new place to play. They understandably view Highmark Stadium, their home since 1973, as outdated and beyond the point of saving with yet another renovation.

Let’s dial the calendar back to 1971. The Bills wanted new digs then, as well. Their home was War Memorial Stadium. The late Ralph Wilson, the team’s founder, wasn’t the least bit bashful about publicly sharing his desire for something bigger and better than the 49,000-seat facility that opened in 1937.

Then, as now, the Bills sought public money to get a new stadium. Then, as now, the dreaded prospect of them moving to another city loomed in the background.

On Sunday, after the Buffalo News’ story about the Bills seeking at least $1.1 billion for a new stadium in Orchard Park and “made clear to government negotiators that there are other cities elsewhere that desire an NFL franchise and would pay handsomely for it,” ESPN.com, citing an unnamed ownership source, reported that Austin, Texas, was a possible site for relocation. A spokesman for Pegula Sports & Entertainment has since disputed that report and the reference in the News’ story to the Bills making threats about relocating in their negotiations with New York State and Erie County officials.

Still, it should come as no surprise that such talk is in the air. Negotiations between owners of sports franchises and government leaders invariably prompt those on the ownership side to say something along the lines of, “If we don’t get what we want, we’re out of here!”

Go back to 1971. Wilson wasn’t big on “floating” items in the media. He usually chose the direct approach. And back then, he went so far as to publicly share that he told officials in Seattle, which didn’t have an NFL franchise at that point, he was “very serious” about moving the Bills there and had, in fact, spoken about it with the King County executive.

War Memorial Stadium was in such bad shape and far below an acceptable standard for an NFL team – even at a time before anyone used the phrase “state of the art” to describe such venues – that Wilson said the Bills had “no alternative but to move.”

“We’ve been in Buffalo 11 years,” Wilson told the Associated Press. “It’s a fine city and we wouldn’t want to hurt the fans. If they would meet us halfway and build a domed stadium, we would want to stay.”

Wilson got at least some of what he wanted. In 1973, Rich Stadium opened. It had a capacity of 80,000, but without a dome.

It has been around long enough to have had many millions of dollars in renovations and three name changes. It’s time for a replacement.

One won’t come cheaply or easily, which is why there are and will continue to be mentions of other cities that could lure the Bills.

On the surface, Austin doesn’t seem like a logical choice. Yes, it has rapidly grown into a destination city, but it’s hard to see a natural co-existence with the town’s largest football entity, the University of Texas.

It’s even harder to see Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys’ owner and one of the most influential forces in the league, being OK with another NFL club infringing on his territory; Austin once served as the site of the Cowboys’ training camp. It ranks in the top 40 of U.S. television markets, while Buffalo is in the low 50s, though that doesn’t seem like a dramatic enough difference for the league to view it as a significant upgrade for the Bills.

San Antonio is the Texas city that has repeatedly come up as an alternative when other NFL franchises have negotiated for new stadiums, and it wouldn’t be a shock if it resurfaces in connection with the Bills. But that, too, would figure to fail to receive the Jerry Jones stamp of approval.

Perhaps the most obvious relocation possibility would be St. Louis, which is suing the Los Angeles Rams’ ownership for moving the team to the West Coast. How fast might that suit disappear if St. Louis were to get another NFL team?

So, be prepared to be annoyed by the likelihood of more mentions of other places the Bills could call home if they don’t get what they want in building a new one in Western New York.

That’s typically how these negotiations go.