Anatomy of a PR Failure: Bon Jovi and the Bills

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Jon Bon Jovi never had a problem pleasing fans. Then he messed with the wrong city.

When Buffalo Bills supporters learned that Bon Jovi — one of the most recognizable rock stars of the past 30 years — was partnering with Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and Edward Rogers, chairman of the Toronto-based communications giant, as part of his quest to own a National Football League franchise, the pop giant’s Q rating hit the ground in Western New York faster than a Trent Edwards checkdown.

Jon Bon Jovi’s Buffalo Walk of Shame

January 2011: The Associated Press recently reported that — over three years ago — Bon Jovi conducted a feasibility study to consider three possible sites for a new NFL stadium: two in Toronto and one in nearby Mississauga.

PR status: This move was made in secret, leaving Bills fans remained blissfully unaware that New Jersey’s second-most famous rocker had designs on their team. In fact, Bon Jovi (the band) would later play a sold-out show on Feb. 23, 2013 at The First Niagara Center in downtown Buffalo.

Jon Bon Jovi

November 2013: Rumors of Bon Jovi’s interest in the Buffalo Bills begin in earnest. CBS Sports reports that Bon Jovi has met with many leaders in the NFL and “has spent considerable time in the Western New York area getting to know politicians and power brokers.”

PR Status: Jason LaCanfora notes that Bon Jovi has ties to the family of MLSE boss Tim Leiweke — there is even a Bon Jovi banner hanging in the Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Comments on the CBS story are a mixed bag:

  • Optimism (“Him buying the team will probally be the only thing that keeps them in Buffalo, if even that, the team doesn’t play a game or 2 in toronto every year to expand their fan base, the present resigme is looking to move there after Mr. Wilson passes or lets go of the team.”)
  • Skepticism (“The Bills Toronto series doesn’t seem worth it.  Not one sellout of a 54,000 seat stadium.  If Toronto is such a sports powerhouse, how can they not fill such a dinky building?  Don’t tell me ‘It’s because of the Bills’ because that doesn’t hold water.”)
  • Panic (“Lord please say it isn’t so! Not the Buffalo Bills! Please let someone with ties to Western NY buy them!”).

Overall, however, public perception of JBJ seems unchanged. Maybe a couple of raised eyebrows, but nothing seems especially urgent…yet.

March 5, 2014: The Buffalo Bills and Rogers Media postpone their Bills in Toronto series. From Bills CEO Russ Brandon:

The Buffalo Bills and Rogers are committed to delivering a first-class NFL experience to Canadians. As such, we have postponed for one year the scheduled 2014 regular season game at Rogers Centre in Toronto, and that game will return to Ralph Wilson Stadium. We will use this time to collectively evaluate opportunities and build on the foundation to enhance future games.

In other words, the series had long stopped being fun for anyone.

March 24, 2014: Ralph Wilson, longtime owner of the Buffalo Bills, dies. Wilson’s death began both a wave of mourning and genuine concern over the future of the franchise.

PR Status: Bills fans are looking for a savior. Bon Jovi is looking for an NFL team. If Jon steps up at this moment and says, “I’ll buy the team and make sure they stay in Buffalo forever,” he’s a hero forever. Even Tico Torres could get elected mayor.

April 10, 2014: Bon Jovi officially becomes the face of the Toronto group interested in purchasing the Buffalo Bills when The Toronto Sun writes that the hirsute rocker is “passionate” about owning an NFL team.

The article by John Kyrk lays out the reasons why the team probably couldn’t be moved…until 2020.

Around the same time, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Andre Reed joins Buffalo Fan Alliance advisory board, voicing his desire to keep the Bills in Buffalo. More on Andre to come!

PR Status: If Bon Jovi has designs on moving the team — even in the long term — this may be one of the first concrete signs that it is going to be a real PR problem. According to Pro Football Talk, 80 percent of readers also responded “no” when asked if the ownership group would keep the team in Buffalo. It’s not just Buffalonians who want to make sure Western New York doesn’t get a raw deal.

June 2014: Names of potential bidders spread. So, too, does fan backlash. Public figures like Bon Jovi (thief!), Donald Trump (jerk!) and Tom Golisano (cheap!) insist that they are serious about the Bills. Sources claim that the Bon Jovi “supergroup” with MLSE and possibly the Jacobs family of Delaware North / Boston Bruins fame “would be hard to beat.”

PR Status: The downward slide really intensifies for JBJ. Bills fans circulate petitions to have Bon Jovi’s music banned in Western New York. Bills Fan Thunder begin selling their Bon Jovi Free Zone t-shirts. NFL analyst, former WNY high school football great and certified JBJ buddy Ron Jaworski does damage control, promising fans that his former business partner (they co-owned an Arena Football League franchise) wouldn’t move the team.

What began as speculation has turned into massive criticism of the star’s intentions. The anti-Bon Jovi feelings spread throughout Western New York. We seem pretty unified on this one, Buffalo.

July 29, 2014: Andre Reed’s famous “F#$% Bon Jovi” comment becomes a matter of public record, thanks to New York Magazine.

PR Status: You’re saying what most Bills fans are thinking, Andre! Reed adds that if the Bills were to move, “You might as well just take this city, throw it in the river, and let it go down Niagara Falls.” Um, that’s enough, Andre.

August 3, 2014: Bon Jovi provides a letter to The Buffalo News to clarify his intentions as an owner. He writes:

I know how much the Bills mean to the people of this region. So I want you to hear this from me: I’m not risking it all to let you down. If we are given the chance to be the next owners of the Buffalo Bills, I promise you that we will bring the same passion that you do every Sunday, every day.”

PR Status: Weak. While he declared his love for football and appreciation for Buffalo Bills fans, he stopped short of saying what fans wanted to hear–that at all costs, the Bills will not leave. Which kind of defeats the purpose of the letter, doesn’t it?

August 3, 2014: This doesn’t take long — the Buffalo Fan Alliance issues a response to Bon Jovi’s letter.

Given the Bon Jovi group’s roots and business commitments in Toronto, the Buffalo Fan Alliance believes that this group will have to tangibly and unequivocally demonstrate to Bills fans everywhere the group’s commitment to Western New York before this community and this fan base will believe their intentions. Anything short of formal action taken on their part will be viewed as nothing more than rhetoric.

PR Status: Rock bottom. Although the BFA’s demands are steep (“a binding pre-purchase agreement with the state and county whereby they would agree to proactively waive the one-year buyout clause in the seventh year of the current lease if they were to successfully purchase the team” — what if efforts for a new stadium fal apart, for instance?), they have a point. The letter offers a lot of platitudes, but little substance. Bon Jovi’s attempt at patching up wounds flops…like his acting career.

Aug. 5, 2014: The JBJ / Toronto group’s initial bid for the Buffalo Bills is rejected. According to the Morgan Stanley, the financial group conducting the sale, the bid was deemed financially insufficient and failed to provide enough evidence that the group would keep the Bills in Buffalo.

PR Status: Double whammy! The move-the-team rumors are fed — validated, perhaps? — and Bon Jovi looks like a bit of a tool as a businessman. Nice bid, Jon.

August 6, 2014: Toronto group resubmits their first round bid.

PR Status: At least things can’t get any worse…

August 14, 2014: …until they do. The Buffalo Fan Alliance uncovers documents that suggest the Toronto trio has plans to relocate the franchise north of the border. The Associated Press verifies that the documents exist.

PR Status: Bon Jovi was already struggling to regain the public’s trust. Now? Looks like there’s no turning back. Time to embrace the role of the bad guy, Jon.

How did things get so bad?

Call it a crisis, a poor public relations effort or a simply a story that blew up in the media. But in any PR effort, half the battle is perception — and Bon Jovi has failed from the get-go.

What happened?

  • Lack of communication. From November to April, Bon Jovi and his partners played coy with Bills fans. From Nov. 25, 2013:

    “The Bills are not for sale, and he has too much respect for Mr. Wilson to engage in any discussions of buying the team,” Ken Sunshine said, referring to Ralph Wilson, the team’s Hall of Fame owner.

    Saying Bon Jovi has “a day job that’s doing very well,” Sunshine added, “It’s preposterous to say he’s had any discussions with the Bills and Erie County.

    Maybe that is technically true, but he clearly had interest — and the denial based on semantics only made the truth that much harder to digest when it came out. We don’t ask for much as fans — we do ask for honesty and at least some degree of transparency. .

  • Underbidding, failing to make long-term promises are sketchy moves. What are we, dirt? You won’t even pay a decent dollar amount for us? And after (sort of, not really) promising the team would stay, you don’t even make that clear in your bid? Slippery moves, Jon (notice how we won’t use a Bon Jovi song / album reference here. You’re welcome).
  • Poor effort to placate the public. Bon Jovi issued the letter meant to ease fans’ worries about the Bills’ future. The problem? It had the direct opposite effect. The letter left fans outraged and further enflamed anti-Bon Jovi feelings. Phrases such as “I promise you we will bring the same passion you do Sunday, every day” are patronizing and meaningless, and do not give Bills’ fans the security they need.SAY YOU WON’T MOVE THE TEAM, JON. JUST SAY IT. And if you will move the team in 10, 15, 20 years? Or would at least consider it? Just say that, too. Let us know who we’re dealing with.

For now, we can only hope that our hometown team will fall in the hands of a righteous owner, that the Bills continue their legacy in Buffalo, and who knows—maybe someday we will hear “Livin’ on a Prayer” in bars again without the accompanying boos.

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