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The Bills Are Staying in Buffalo - So Now What?


The battle for the Buffalo Bills ended up as a blowout. Vanquishing Jon Bon Jovi and Donald Trump was the easy part. Turning around what has been the National Football League’s most inept franchise for a decade-and-half presents a much greater challenge for Terry and Kim Pegula.

Turns out nobody ever really needed to worry about Bon Jovi or Trump, after all.

The Pegulas’ bid so impressed the members of the trust selling the Buffalo Bills on behalf of Ralph C. Wilson Jr.’s estate that barely a full day passed from the submission of final offers to the announcement that the Sabres’ owner had won the selection process.

It was not just that his $1.4 billion came in higher than the other finalists. The Pegulas probably could have saved a couple hundred million and still landed the Bills precisely because they are not Bon Jovi or Trump.

The billionaires’ club known as the National Football League does have some standards, after all—even if Washington’s Dan Snyder, who spends more effort defending an increasingly reviled trademark than building a competent football team, and Jerry Jones, who stands accused of carrying around waivers for potential sexual-assault victims to sign, are among its members.

The half-hearted attempts by Bon Jovi and his Toronto partners to convince the league and the team’s fans that they would not move the Bills across the border at the first possible opportunity failed miserably.

The 2020 buyout window in the Bills’ latest lease created the chance of a carpet-bagging ownership group letting the team rot for nearly six seasons in order to suppress ticket sales, as well as political pressure to stop such a move. The virulent backlash to Bon Jovi’s potential ownership would not have helped overall stadium revenue, either, meaning every visiting owner would take a hit. There is no way that scenario would have gotten the approval of 24 of the league’s 31 owners, who would presumably like to eventually expand internationally on their own terms.

It’s hard to believe even Donald Trump took his own bid seriously. The NFL does not like its owners to do or say anything remotely controversial, and Trump does not seem to like to do anything else. Roger Goodell has enough public-relations problems at the moment without dealing with media questions about Trump’s latest Twitter war. Then there was the defunct USFL’s lawsuit against the NFL nearly three decades ago, which Trump forced when he owned the New Jersey Generals.

The proposals themselves had other problems. Bon Jovi was the face of the Toronto bid, but the majority of the cash was coming from Larry Tannenbaum, CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and Edward Rogers III, heir to the eponymous Canadian communications giant. The NFL prefers one owner to three (unless that one’s name is Trump).

NFL owners do not declare bankruptcy, a key tool in Trump’s empire-building kit, and his business deals tend to involve ornate financing arrangements. The NFL likes cash.

Pegula brings no such issues to the league, and it’s hard to imagine him falling short of the 24 votes required at the owners’ meeting next month.

Fallout from the mishandling of Ray Rice’s brutal attack on the future Mrs. Rice in an Atlantic City casino elevator has Goodell under heavy fire, and the sordid details of the lawsuit against Jones do not figure to help the NFL’s image vis a vis gender relations. That should douse any effort to strong-arm the Buffalo area into committing to a new stadium before approving the sale.

Kim Pegula’s potentially significant role in running the Bills should be another plus in gaining the needed votes. Likewise with the family’s investment in the area surrounding First Niagara Center, the most logical site for the new Buffalo football stadium the NFL would really, really like to see.

Now comes the hard part.

After going through an ugly break-up with team president Tom Donahoe following the 2005 season, Wilson turned over control of the team to a series of familiar faces—Marv Levy, Buddy Nix and Russ Brandon. None have been able to break the cycle of mediocrity that has kept the Bills out of the playoffs for the last 14 seasons, the longest such skid in the league.

Brandon took the first step back toward modernity by replacing the retiring Nix as general manager with Doug Whaley, whose background as part of Pittsburgh’s far more successful front office made him a choice both qualified and convenient.

The pending sale puts increased heat on Whaley and coach Doug Marrone, each one game into their second season in charge. The trade that brought wide receiver Sammy Watkins to town, while costing the Bills their first-round draft choice next year, means they need to get to the playoffs or come awfully close for Whaley and Marrone to keep their jobs.

After buying the Sabres, Pegula kept the longtime management/coaching team of Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff in place. As the losing intensified, though, Ruff got whacked during Pegula’s second season, followed by Regier early in the third, going outside the organization to replace the latter with Tim Murray.

The Sabres have yet to make the playoffs under Pegula, and the focus of his fourth season appears to be securing the National Hockey League’s worst record for the second straight season. Such futility would increase the chances of landing Connor McDavid, the most widely acclaimed prospect to come along in years.

Pegula has shown he will not hesitate to blow things up and start over. After staying the course with Ruff and Regier helped take the Sabres to the depths of the NHL, it seems unlikely he will wait as long to reboot the Bills if the season just underway does not continue as successfully as it started last Sunday in Chicago.

Ruff and Regier each got more than a year to prove they could not get things turned around. Whaley and Marrone have four months.

Despite all the losing, Sabres fans have largely been patient with the rebuilding process. That might have something to do with a business owner who is willing to reach into his own pocket to buy a franchise or spearhead the sort of waterfront development that has languished for decades.

Vanquishing the specter of the Bills leaving town should lead to similar patience among a fan base whose best memories date back 20 years.

A couple of predictions for this Sunday, when the Bills host the Dolphins in the first game in their 55-season history under an owner other than Ralph C. Wilson Jr. (or his estate):

It will get loud in Orchard Park. Quite loud.

And the game itself will be more competitive than the ownership derby ever was.

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