Right of Way

An inauspicious start to the Mario Williams Era in Buffalo has some fans suspicious; both of the team’s motivation for shelling out $100 million to the big man and Williams himself. It’s far too early to worry about that, really, but a question of the Bills’ motivation is far from absurd. Sports are no longer about just wins and losses. We all know better than that.

The final score is all that matters when you first learn about sports. Perhaps your local Little League coach feels otherwise, but the pro teams you fall in love with live and die by the scoreboard. Which margin you increase in the win/loss record matters first; and each subsequent sporting emotion comes from that initial equation.

The “moral victory” notched in a numerical loss and is rendered moot by a real win. There is no need for morality when math is on your side. The same goes for all those close calls that finish in victory. No one remembers the almost.

Wins are still paramount, but on-field success is not everything. There are tickets and jerseys to sell, revenue to generate and stadiums to build. There are many ways to win in sports, especially if you have the keys to the castle.

Mario Williams was brought to Buffalo because he will help the Bills win. Somewhere.

Arsenal, one of the top soccer clubs in the English Premier League, wins. In Europe, though, you can win with fiscal fitness as well as trophies. Aaron Gordon wrote about the Gunners in a Classical piece called The Importance of Being Right.

Over the last decade, Arsenal has become a team that is consistently competitive at the highest level while maintaining financial stability. Arsenal sells high on its top players and reinvests that money into young talent while still qualifying for the lucrative Champions League tournament. Other top teams are infused with oil money and plunge themselves hundreds of millions of dollars into debt to win the Premiership; Arsenal simply stays consistent. And competitive.

From a financial standpoint, it is undoubtedly the right way to do things. If you believe in the forthcoming financial apocalypse the EPL may be facing, being smart and keeping afloat is a good play. It just hasn’t gotten them a trophy—nary a peddling Carling Cup—in over seven years, but the ledger sure looks good.

Arsenal is right about many things, but are they right about the most important thing? Is what’s most important to fans—winning on the pitch—different than what’s most important to the team?

Just days after Mario Williams signed with the Bills, more than 6,000 people requested his jersey. Forty percent of new season ticket sales—about 4,300 in all—came in that period.

Those numbers are evidence of nothing in particular, but there is a distinct cause and effect in place here. Williams gave the Bills a bump at the merchandise tent and at the box office. Williams helped the Bills win with their bottom line.

It’s far too early to tell if Williams will underwhelm on the field, but early indications have not been good. Perhaps that will change in the coming weeks, but the precursory thunder of a coming storm is already here.

Fans like to say that their teams have no idea what they’re doing. Just the opposite is true. We’re shut out of the boardrooms and conference calls where strategic decisions are made. We don’t see the film rooms and practices where game plans are developed and implemented.

What we see is what happens on the field and on television. A shot of Stevie Johnson hawking season tickets during commercial breaks and—so far—the ghost of Super Mario on Sundays.

Other than the score itself, anything we conclude from all that isn’t much better than pure speculation. Are the Bills trying to win right now or simply maintain the status quo while collecting season ticket revenue and lobbying for $200 million in stadium renovations? If the answer isn’t obvious, should you assume the worst?

I have to wonder if you can blame them, really. Winning actual games is still pretty high on the priority list for the Buffalo Bills. It’s definitely in the top three. To keep the Bills in Buffalo, though, some other things matter more than what the Patriots did at the Ralph on Sunday.

Keeping the Bills in Buffalo is usually a goal of the fans as well, but it’s hard to focus on the big picture when the scoreboard clock is ticking.