Wilson’s passing leaves Bills’ future in question

Photo: Bill Wippert/AP

The first bridge needing crossing before various Toronto-based movers and shakers could really make a run at bringing the Buffalo Bills north was the one separating Ralph Wilson from the great hereafter. It is no more. The iconic Buffalo Bills owner died peacefully of natural causes Tuesday at age 95, accompanied by his family.

Wilson was one of modern football’s founding fathers and the person who sustained the NFL in Buffalo for so long. The condolences are deserved.

“He was a very good owner who loved the league, the city and the team,” said MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke via email. “Sad day for the NFL and for Buffalo.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: “He loved the game and took a chance on a start-up league in 1960 as a founding owner of the American Football League. He brought his beloved Bills to western New York and his commitment to the team’s role in the community set a standard for the NFL.”

Normally it would be crass to get so quickly into the nuts and bolts of what his death means to the future of his football team and in particular what it might mean for the future of the NFL in Toronto, the city forever twirling ringlets and flashing doe eyes at the sports industry’s big lug, to no avail. But let’s not pretend here. The future of the Bills in Buffalo after the death of their owner has been a topic for at least a decade, except that it always required pointing out that Wilson was very much alive.

In a few days there will be a funeral for the former insurance executive who was truly one of the sport’s builders. The member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be remembered as an original owner in the American Football League, signaling his intent by telegram to AFL founder Lamar Hunt: “Count me in with Buffalo.”

He bought the Bills for $25,000, lent money to owners of the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders that helped the AFL survive and profited handsomely when the Bills were part of the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. A players’ owner, the team he bought in 1959 is valued at $857 million at his death, according to the latest Forbes estimates, not bad for a team that has missed the playoffs for 14 straight seasons.

Not long after the funeral, the charting of the future of Western New York’s most identifiable institution will begin in earnest.

The likes of Goodell and the 31 other owners in the NFL will make noises about wanting to keep the team in Buffalo, one of the league’s smallest markets.

Wealthy men with local ties that might have interest—Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, former Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano—will get name-dropped. In the meantime the team will be managed by a trust until the details of a sale can be worked out.

The challenge is that those managing the trust will have fiduciary duty to get the highest return possible for Wilson’s estate, and it’s almost certain that the highest return will be had from somewhere other than Western New York.

It won’t happen overnight. The team is tied by a lease to publicly owned Ralph Wilson Stadium until 2023. Breaking the deal before then would include a $400-million penalty, but the contract has an out clause in 2020 where the team can move at a penalty of $28.4 million. If something is going to happen with the Bills, put that date in stone.

The unfortunate reality for those who think Toronto deserves an NFL team—the mothballed Bills in Toronto series notwithstanding—is that by far the most preferred market for the rest of the NFL is Los Angeles, the second-largest TV market in the U.S. and yet one without a team since 1994. In an ideal world the NFL would have two teams in Southern California, which would help drive both TV numbers and revenues.

There will be forces from Toronto trying to make themselves heard. The two men positioned to lead a bid for an NFL team here are Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of MLSE, and Ed Rogers, deputy chairman of Rogers Communications and an MLSE board member.

The NFL requires an individual and their family to own at least 30 percent of a franchise. Presumably Tanenbaum or Rogers could comfortably manage the $300 million or more required. Each would also have the support of MLSE in partnering on the $1 billion or so an NFL-ready stadium would cost.

That MLSE has thrown a comforting arm around the shoulders of the Toronto Argonauts and made promises about letting them camp out at a renovated BMO Field is a signal of the Leiweke-led company’s eagerness to have a massive role should the NFL finally decide to reciprocate Toronto’s affections.

That Leiweke has been front and centre with long-time aspiring NFL front man Jon Bon Jovi is another sign.

There are only so many ways for a mature company like MLSE to grow; adding an NFL team would nearly double its holdings in one fell swoop. Conversely they can’t afford to have another set of interests suck a $2-billion sports and entertainment project out from under them.

But interest is a long way from affection. Toronto has been getting the cold shoulder from the NFL for 40 years. One of the biggest obstacles Toronto has is that it’s not a U.S. television market. Will 31 other owners want to cut a $120-million cheque (each team’s current share of the national television contract) with a partner whose presence is meaningless to the U.S. broadcasters who make the league so profitable? Is there any way adding Toronto to the NFL enhances league revenues enough to make it worthwhile for the rest of the NFL to rip the soul out of a long-standing market?

Logically the answer is no. At the very least solving the many problems that lie between Toronto and its NFL dreams will take all kinds of imaginative discussion. Which is a kind of sport on its own.

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