Will DiNapoli save the Bills before Cuomo even has a chance?

It’s no secret that Governor Andrew Cuomo and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli don’t like each other. Cuomo has received only tepid support from organized labor, which provides DiNapoli with a robust base of support and reelection machine. The Cuomo camp contends that DiNapoli enjoys playing the role of ‘Irritant in Albany”, having issued audits that have been critical of the administration.

Cuomo’s relationship with the left flank of his party has been strained — to the extent that the Working Families Party threatened a robust challenge to the Governor from the left, and contemplated nominating education activist Diane Ravitch to challenge the Governor. Ravitch had assembled the support of labor and teachers. Last month, Cuomo took bold moves to the left to secure that party’s nomination and to thwart the Ravitch candidacy.

Cuomo’s relationship with DiNapoli illustrates the deep divide and mistrust inside the Democratic Party, between the leftists and the centrists. Now, the rivalry may be getting serious.

Some political operatives suspect that DiNapoli is plotting to upstage the first term Governor, and is on the verge of orchestrating a deal to “Save the Buffalo Bills” before Governor Cuomo even has a chance.  DiNapoli is the sole trustee of the New York Common Retirement Fund – controlling well over $160 billion in investment assets. The Comptroller’s Office is denying the rumors, but a source close to DiNapoli says that the Comptroller is already contemplating the terms of what an agreement could look like.

The source says that DiNapoli even had an analyst price the Buffalo Bills franchise, which they think is somewhere between $700 million to $800 million, but could be sold at a much higher price if a bidding war ensues.  DiNapoli is said to be comfortable with that price and willing to invest up to $500 million in an equity purchase (about two thirds of the total enterprise value).  NFL rules require that a team’s primary owner holds at least 30% of the equity (though for inherited teams there is a lower threshold).

The New York State Common Retirement Fund would then hold the investment permanently among its portfolio of private equities. With that ownership structure, a minority interest in the team could be bought and sold among the very wealthy owners who are looking for the status and public profile that an NFL team comes with.  Despite ownership changes in the future, the team will never be moved, as the Comptroller will permanently control a majority equity interest in the team.

I’m told that DiNapoli is willing to finance a deal with any qualified investor who has cash on hand in the range of $200 to $300 million, but prefers a Buffalo-based buyer. That would make the Buffalo Bills a whole lot more affordable – and eminently savable.

Among those who have expressed interest in the Buffalo Bills are billionaires Donald Trump and Tom Golisano, who have both said that they would keep the Bills in Buffalo. Others, including Howard Milstein and Jeremy Jacobs, don’t intend to pursue ownership of the Bills, but are interested in playing a role with the stadium for obvious reasons. (Milstein owns 140 acres of land in downtown Niagara Falls and Jacobs owns one of the largest concession firms in the nation).

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