Ralph Wilson says he won’t sell the Bills

The Bills are Ralph Wilson’s football team. It always has been his football team, and he’s holding on as tight as ever. The 88-year-old Wilson is the only owner the Buffalo Bills franchise has had in its history, and that’s the way it’s going to stay as long as he’s alive. In his first comments on the future of the team in more than a year, Wilson stated in an interview with Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News that the team will be sold after — not before — he dies. He also stated, point blank, that he would not leave the team to his wife, Mary — a scenario about which there has been considerable speculation. “I think she’s capable and she could do it, but it would be tough,” Wilson said. “My daughters are interested in the game, but they’re not going to own the team.”

The future of the Bills is an issue that won’t go away because of the collective fear among Western New Yorkers over the prospect of some billionaire from another city buying the team and moving it out of town. While Wilson has stated on numerous occasions in the past decade that the team will be sold after he’s gone, it is common knowledge in the Bills’ organization that the subject is one Wilson hates to discuss. “I’m interested in winning a few games, not talking about this other stuff,” Wilson said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Nobody does.” Wilson said he thinks it’s possible someone who wants to keep the team in Buffalo could buy the team, but he said he currently has no inside information on who that might be.

Wilson bought the franchise for $25,000 in 1959. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated the Bills’ franchise value at $627 million. The Bills currently have a lease with Erie County that runs six more seasons — through the 2012 season. That lease would be fairly easy to break. It could be bought out, under the terms of the agreement, by a new owner for about $30 million, not very much considering the magnitude of the sale price for the team. Any sale of an NFL franchise or relocation would be subject to the approval of the other NFL owners. Also out of the question, according to Wilson, is the prospect of selling part of the team to a Western New Yorker while he’s still alive in order to perhaps give that person an advantage in eventually taking over the club. “That’s absolutely out,” he said.

Over the years, rumors occasionally have popped up about the possibility of Wilson cutting a deal for the sale of the team by his estate. There was even a rumor that got widespread e-mail buzz last year that said Wilson had a deal to sell the team to Toronto interests (apparently ignoring the fact that the team’s value is likely to continue to rise), and then Sabres owner Tom Golisano would get an expansion team and put it in a domed stadium that he would build in downtown Buffalo. It’s difficult to speculate on the environment in which Wilson’s estate will sell the team, because there are so many variables.

What will be the state of small markets in the NFL when that time comes? They seem secure for now. But while the current NFL collective bargaining agreement runs through 2012, owners could decide to opt out as early as next year. Will there be a team in Los Angeles? (I doubt it as support there in the past was iffy at best) Will any other teams relocate before the Bills go up for sale? Minnesota’s lease, for instance, runs through 2011. So it’s really hard to say. However, the idea of whether Buffalo would ever get another NFL team if it lost the Bills seems very remote, given the city’s small market size and the collective desire of the NFL’s 32 owners to maximize revenues. And the thought of Wilson scaling back on his involvement with the team likewise seems far-fetched.

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