Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson passed away on Tuesday at the age of 95, one would assume from complications due to being 95. Wilson bought into the old American Football League in 1959, bringing the Bills into existence. The team won AFL championships in 1964 and 1965 (the last two years before the Super Bowl was instituted) and famously appeared in — and lost — four consecutive Super Bowls from the 1990-1993 seasons. Wilson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, as one of the leagues pioneering owners.
"He passed away peacefully, with his beautiful wife Mary and his daughters by his side," said Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon. "No one loved this league more than Ralph Wilson, and his fellow owners and his players. Obviously trying to deal with this information, it's very difficult at this time."
With him, the NFL loses its oldest and longest tenured owner. The city of Buffalo stands to lose a good bit more, depending on what happens with Bills ownership in the future.
In December of 2012, the Bills signed a lease to continue playing football in Buffalo (specifically at Ralph Wilson Stadium) for the next 10 years. There is an opt-out after seven. Still, conventional wisdom has held that Wilson's heirs have no interest in owning a football team and would look to sell. As recently as last November, Jon Bon Jovi was reportedly looking into buying the team, though Bon Jovi's publicist downplayed it at the time:
"The Bills are not for sale, and he has too much respect for Mr. Wilson to engage in any discussions of buying the team," Ken Sunshine said, referring to Ralph Wilson, the team's Hall of Fame owner.
With Wilson now passed away, the vultures may well begin circling away. Are we calling Jon Bon Jovi a vulture in this case? IF THE TALONS FIT. You'll have to forgive a native Buffalonian for feeling a bit antsy at this time, as talk of the Bills leaving Buffalo has been around for over a decade and never fails to inspire panic and dread. Toronto had been the hot rumor for relocation for a while, though the lack of fan interest in the Bills' annual "home" game in Toronto was fairly pitiful, and several weeks ago, it was announced that the Bills' series north of the border was "postponed" for the coming season. Los Angeles, devoid of an NFL team since 1995, is a constant rumored destination, but nothing concrete has ever materialized.
The case for keeping the Bills in Buffalo is largely an emotional one. Former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly has said in the past that he won't allow the team to leave Buffalo, and has in fact alluded to buyers he may have "lined up" to buy the team. But that was years ago, and Kelly can't be in much of a position to set up deals of any kind with the recent news that he's gearing up for surgery to combat his recurrent cancer.
For now, Bills fans will remember the five-plus decades of football Wilson presided over. More than likely, though, they will fret. Of course, if Mark Cuban is right, the NFL is a decade away from imploding anyway, so this may all be moot.