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Howard Simon's Blog

What About Ralph Wilson's Legacy?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ralph Wilson and the future existence of the Bills in Western New York lately. The latest story to make me wonder how much longer the Bills will be around was the passing of former Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell.
When the news broke about Wilson being hospitalized before the Bills pre-season game in Detroit, who didn’t think about what will happen when he’s gone? I thought about that when Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis passed away and before that, when Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt passed away.
There’s one big difference. A plan was in place for those franchises to stay in the family’s hands and for one of the owner’s offspring to take control.  Same thing in Cleveland where, upon the death of Al Lerner, his son Randy took over.  Although the Browns were recently sold, the team is staying in Cleveland.
Whenever I see a story about the lease talks I immediately wonder how strong the lease will be in the event the next owner wants to move the team.  Perhaps your first thought is about penalty clauses so we get our taxpayer investments back if the stadium isn’t used by the future Bills teams.
I wouldn’t be doing all of this if there was a succession plan in place or some kind of agreement regarding the sale of the team to local ownership which would ensure the franchise remains in place.
This takes me back to the Modell story because the day has been filled with tributes to the man, with veteran NFL reporter John Clayton from ESPN saying Modell is on the “Mt. Rushmore of owners.”
Yet all I can think of when it comes to Art Modell is he’s the guy who moved the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore.  Right or wrong, one negative move can trump a multitude of positives in someone’s life.
Think about the Joe Paterno story. Now I’m not trying to say moving a football team is anywhere near the atrocities that took place under Paterno’s watch but it’s the idea of the impact on one’s legacy and how quickly it can be altered after years of great accomplishments.
I feel the same way about Ralph Wilson, who as opposed to Modell, is already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for  many contributions  over his time in the NFL. 
Wilson’s legacy is TBD(to be determined).  In my opinion it will rest solely on what happens to the franchise after his demise.  No longer is it enough to say his legacy is cemented because he didn’t move the Bills during his lifetime.  His decisions during that lifetime will determine the future home of the team.
It would appear the time has never been better to strike a deal(assuming something hasn’t been completed behind the scenes and amazingly been kept a secret) with an individual or group of owners who will pledge their loyalty to WNY.
Despite our small market and the Bills lack of success on the field since the 1990’s, the value of the franchise continues to increase thanks to the “everything it touches turns to gold NFL.”
Forbes values the Bills franchise at $805 million which is 29th in the league.  We don’t know for sure but I’m going to bet the Bills are a profitable venture on a regular basis despite the recent drop in ticket sales and relatively low ticket prices.  They are likely not among the bottom third teams when it comes to generating revenue.
Regionalization has been a success. Say what you want about the Toronto deal, it brought in another important revenue stream for the franchise making it more profitable.  Despite the scores of empty seats at the Rogers Center(my apologies to our friends in Canada, I cant put the r before the e) the deal has been extended.
The Bills completed an extension of their training camp deal with St. John Fisher because Rochester has been a big boost in sales of tickets, club seats and the all important luxury boxes.
It appears progress is being made on the lease deal with Erie County and New York State and there could be some $225 million going into renovations at Ralph Wilson Stadium to extend the life of the facility another 15 years or longer.
We know Jim Kelly has publicly stated that he has a “money guy” who can buy the Bills and the Hall of Fame QB would gladly talk to the owner about buying the team but Wilson wants no part of it.
Of the potential stumbling blocks to keeping the Bills in WNY, I have been told finding new owners with the financial wherewithal to make it work is NOT a problem.
Ralph Wilson brought the National Football League to Buffalo and has indeed kept it here. Of course it isn’t like he received nothing for his commitment.  He’s been very loyal to the NFL, at times making decisions that were best for the league and not necessarily best for his own interests. Back in the 1960’s he personally helped keep the fledgling American Football League afloat and helped with its eventual merger into the NFL.
Its an impressive resume and as stated earlier, it led to his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.  By the way, if Modell was so beloved, how come he was never elected into the Hall of Fame? Because his legacy was forever changed when he moved the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore.  The Bills apparently will remain in Buffalo as long as Ralph Wilson is alive but his legacy will rise or fall based on what happens to the franchise when the second owner in Bills history takes over.

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Locations : BaltimoreBuffaloClevelandDetroitErie CountyNew YorkRochesterTorontoWestern New York
People : Al DavisAl LernerJim KellyJohn ClaytonLamar HuntRalph WilsonRandy

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