When Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. passed away on Tuesday afternoon at the age of 95, the NFL lost a founding father, and the final surviving member of the original AFL owners. He was among the men who called themselves members of the “Foolish Club,” taking up ownership in a rival league.
When the two leagues merged, their creation turned into a pillar of the NFL we know today. Before that success, though, Wilson made sacrifices and pulled all the necessary financial levers to ensure the AFL not only survived, but thrived.
Best Ralph Wilson story: In the early 1960s, he loaned the Raiders $400,000 so they could stay solvent and the AFL could survive.
— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) March 25, 2014
That’s who he was, and the Hall of famer (elected in 2009) channeled that same dedication and energy into growing the Bills and their brand in Buffalo, a smaller NFL market especially when compared to its in-state rivals. Which is why right now, as cold as it seems, there’s an unavoidable question already looming.
Without Wilson and his dedication to Buffalo, what does the future hold for the Bills?
With his passing, there will be several suitors seeking to purchase the Bills, both in Western NY, as well as from Ontario
— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) March 25, 2014
For years it’s been known that Wilson’s financial clout was keeping the Bills tied to upstate New York, but as he aged uncertainty about what would happen to his small-market franchise grew.
When Bud Adams and Al Davis recently passed, there were mechanisms in place to keep the ownership of those franchises within their respective families. That doesn’t exist in Buffalo, and Jason La Canfora called the sale of the club “virtually certain“, with current CEO Russ Brandon acting as the de facto owner. Long before his death Wilson had ruled out the possibility of his family taking over, and for now the team will likely be placed into a trust.
In his later years Wilson reached out to Toronto for support, hoping to tap into lucrative southeastern Ontario. That resulted in the Bills Toronto Series, a partnership with Rogers Communications for six years, and an initial payment of $78 million. Until its recent postponement the series was billed as a way to expand a fanbase, and warmly welcome another large group that was already making the southward journey to Bills home games anyway. But those dollars — those helpful dollars — were the real motivation.
Annually before each Bills Toronto Series game the tradition of discussing the NFL in Toronto led to the much more specific conversation about the Bills moving north. Any relocation talk is difficult for a passionate fanbase, but it’s that much worse when those doing the talking are already stealing one home game every season. Now the speculation that surfaced in the fall of Jon Bon Jovi leading a Bills charge to Toronto with the backing of his rather rich Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment friends will begin again.
In November La Canfora reported Bon Jovi was making the necessary moves to align himself as a buyer when the Bills go up for sale upon Wilson’s passing. His ties to Tim Leiweke, the CEO of MLSE, will help to push past the only remaining major hurdle in Toronto: a viable NFL stadium. The Rogers Centre has been a sufficient temporary solution during the Bills Toronto Series, but it’s cavernous, hollow, and far short on capacity.
Rogers is also a clear contender and likely Bon Jovi’s primary competitor, and business groups in Buffalo will form, with deep-pocketed Sabres owner Terry Pegula a leading candidate. In the past Jim Kelly has also been linked to several groups with enough financial capital to make the purchase, though his health his in question now too as he prepares for further cancer surgery. Then there’s Los Angeles, a glistening NFL destination in the middle of the league’s most underserved market, though La Canfora’s sources downplayed that due to the proximity of Toronto.
It’s been reported that bidding would begin in the neighborhood of $850 million and possibly reach up to $1 billion. That’s a heavy price tag, and adding to it is the cost of escaping a 10-year lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium signed last December which is estimated to be $400 million if it’s broken before 2020. It’s a penalty which makes immediate movement unlikely, and it secures the franchise’s short-term future. However, after 2019 it falls to a far more affordable $28 million.
Those are the twists and turns ahead on a difficult road to navigate, one that’s still hard to acknowledge. For now, Wilson’s immense NFL legacy will be honored and celebrated.
— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) March 25, 2014