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Good Night, Ralph...

So what happens to the Bills?

Since I started writing about the Buffalo Bills almost a quarter-century ago, a single question has lingered above and behind all other discussions about the National Football League franchise: What happens when Ralph dies?

With Tuesday’s death at age 95 of Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the founder and sole owner of the Bills throughout their 55-year history, that long-running hypothetical finally requires a response.

The answer, at least for the immediate future, is simple:

Not much.

Wilson turned over control of the franchise more than a year ago, when he named Russ Brandon the third president in team history, bequeathing a title previously held only by the owner himself and, for an otherwise undistinguished period from 2001 to 2005, Tom Donahoe.

Wilson’s direct involvement with the team had dwindled in recent years, and he had made few public appearances since his 2009 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

With his death, ownership of the Bills transfers to a trust established by his estate. According to the Buffalo News, there is no deadline to sell the team.

That the Bills will eventually go to the highest bidder has never really been in question, given Wilson’s refusal to discuss selling while he was alive. The question, today as it was a week ago and two decades ago, is who might buy them?

The market for NFL franchises isn’t nearly as fluid as it was in the mid-1990s. A series of shifts and three rounds of expansion put teams in every city that had previously lost one (except for Los Angeles, which we will get to later), as well as virgin markets like the Carolinas and Nashville, which had been used as leverage by NFL owners seeking new or improved facilities from local governments throughout the league.

In short, there is not a single city with an NFL-ready stadium anywhere in the United States lacking an NFL team to fill it. Or in Canada, for that matter.

That includes you, Toronto. Like their peers in Major League Baseball, NFL owners have long insisted on sport-specific facilities, rendering multi-use stadia like Rogers Centre obsolete.

So moving the Bills would mean not only buying the team (appraised at $870 million last year by Forbes magazine), but also building, or securing financing to build, a new stadium specifically to house the transplanted franchise. (The last two NFL new builds, the homes of the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets and Giants, each came in at $1 billion-plus.)

There is also the early withdrawal penalty written into the franchise’s lease with Erie County ($400 million until 2020, when the team owner can buy out of the deal for less than $30 million). And a relocation fee to be extracted by the not-for-profit NFL (which also figures to be in the hundreds of millions), assuming 24 of the other 31 owners decide such a move is in their best interests.

Let’s put all those parenthetical numbers together. To move the Bills out of Buffalo before 2020 would cost the new owners at least $1.5 billion, and quite possibly more than double the franchise’s value, depending on the relocation fee extracted by the NFL. And they’ll still have to find another $1 billion or more of someone’s money to provide their new franchise with a place to play.

Which brings us back to Los Angeles. Several groups competing to build a football stadium have produced little beyond some very attractive artists’ renderings, while the region has survived quite happily without an NFL team of its own since the Rams left for St. Louis and the Raiders headed back to Oakland following the 1994 season.

Even if the stadium issue gets settled, are the Bills really the most attractive tenant? The Dodgers brought championships and tradition with them when they moved from Brooklyn in 1957, as did the Lakers from Minneapolis a couple years later. The Bills have those four AFC titles from the early 1990s and the two AFL crowns from the 1960s, all of which add up to count for nothing in today’s market.

Given the additional costs involved with moving an existing team, convincing the NFL to expand by a team or two—and several of the LA stadium plans hinge on procuring a second franchise—makes more sense than overpaying for the Bills.

Of course, keeping the team in Buffalo will not be cheap, either. Like all their NFL brethren, the Bills are in the black before selling a single ticket, thanks to the league’s various television deals. But the region lacks the sort of corporate presence that sells out luxury suites and club seats elsewhere, at double or more the prices asked buy the Bills. Unlike television and regular tickets, those premium seats generate revenue that does not have to be shared equally with the rest of the league.

The franchise remained comfortably profitable under Wilson, despite the state of the local economy. The next owner, though, will face another cash-flow restriction about which Wilson never had to worry—debt service.

The popular list of saviors who will keep the Bills in—or, more accurately, near—Buffalo is headed by two names that have filled the same role with the Sabres, and both possess the requisite pocket depth. But Tom Golisano seemed to lose interest after a pair of playoff runs failed to yield a Stanley Cup, while the dismal state of Terry Pegula’s Sabres does not exactly speak well to his sports-management acumen.

Then there is the anonymous potential ownership group theoretically headed by Jim Kelly. News that the Hall-of-Fame quarterback’s cancer had recurred would seem to take him out of the mix, at least while he undergoes treatment. If his potential investors have the resources and the desire to keep the team local, though, it seems they would do so with or without his involvement.

This being the NFL, any talk of a group buying the team is a little dodgy, no matter how well-heeled its members. The league has historically demanded a single majority owner both to provide the franchise with a single, public face, and to avoid the sort of shareholder strife that enmeshed the Atlanta-centric investment group that owned the NBA’s Hawks and the Thrashers of the NHL (who ultimately moved to Winnipeg in 2011) in a series of messy public lawsuits.

While Wilson’s death leaves the team he created with an unknowable future, he leaves an indelible legacy in his second, adopted hometown.

After growing up in Detroit as a Lions fan and making the early portion of his fortune by expanding the family insurance business into the communications and transportation sectors, the $25,000 Wilson spent at age 40 for the rights to a franchise in the fledgling American Football League provided Buffalo with its first modern big-league sports team.

The success of the Bills in the mid-1960s made Buffalo an attractive expansion possibility for the NHL and NBA, as well as Major League Baseball. Buffalo’s population had been in decline since peaking in 1950. This, despite ominous economic trends like the death of the city’s shipping industry and the collapse of the Schoellkopf Power Station in Niagara Falls in 1956, which ultimately raised the price of power needed by all businesses.

Either unfazed by or oblivious to those indicators, Seymour and Northrup Knox followed Wilson into the professional sports business, with their Sabres taking up occupancy at Memorial Auditorium in the fall of 1970, as did the Braves of the NBA.

Buffalo was passed over in favor of Montreal and San Diego by baseball’s expansion committee a couple years earlier, but the Rich family’s subsequent bid for a big-league team spurred the construction of the downtown ballpark in the 1980s.

War Memorial Stadium, at Jefferson and Ferry on the city’s East Side, was obsolete when Wilson and the Bills took up residence for the AFL’s debut season. Renovations increased the seating capacity, but it remained too small for the team to survive following the new league’s merger with the established NFL.

After efforts to build a domed stadium somewhere in Erie County collapsed in classic Western New York fashion, Wilson used the possibility of a move to Seattle to convince lawmakers to build what would be known as Rich Stadium in Orchard Park. The expiration of the team’s initial lease in 1998 led to millions in municipally funded upgrades, as well as the stadium being renamed for the Bills owner.

By then, the Bills’ run as a competitive force in the NFL, highlighted by those four Super Bowl appearances, was coming to an end, with their most recent playoff appearance occurring in the first week of 2000.

In the years since, Wilson cycled through six general managers and five head coaches, who managed to produce exactly one season in which his team won more games than it lost. Since Donahoe’s acrimonious departure after the 2005 season, he showed little interest in looking beyond team headquarters when an important job opened, bringing Marv Levy back for a brief stint as general manager and giving the okay to the uninspired coaching hires of Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey.

Brandon’s ascendancy was another case of hiring from within, but within a couple of months of his promotion to president, Doug Marrone replaced Gailey and Doug Whaley took over for Buddy Nix as general manager. The new front office’s first season produced more of the same in the standings, but showed that for the first time in years, there seems to be a plan of some sort in place.

On the field, at least.

David Staba has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990 for a variety of outlets. Read his past columns for AV at Artvoice.com or at his blog, We Want Marangi: wewantmarangi.blogspot.com.

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