BUFFALO, N.Y. – Ralph Wilson fulfilled his vow in keeping the Bills in Buffalo during his lifetime.
Though they won’t be leaving any time soon following the 95-year-old Pro Football Hall of Fame owner’s death, their long-term future is in question.
The Bills are essentially locked in to playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium through the next six years. That’s because of a non-relocation provision included in the team’s lease agreement that would require the Bills to pay a $400 million penalty if they leave before the 2019 season.
“Anyone expecting to see the Los Angeles Bills is sorely mistaken,” SportsCorp President Marc Ganis told The Associated Press. “They can’t move even if they wanted to. It would go against the ironclad agreement done with Ralph’s blessing.”
Ganis, a close observer of the NFL, heads a Chicago-based consulting firm and is very familiar with the 10-year lease the Bills negotiated with state and county governments in December 2012.
“With that lease, Ralph gave away hundreds of millions of dollars as, in essence, a parting gift to Buffalo,” Ganis said.
While it looks highly unlikely any potential owner would try to break the lease, nothing is impossible. And as for what happens beyond 2019 is uncertain and largely dependent on the next owner. In 2020, the Bills have a one-time opportunity to opt out of the lease for $28.4 million.
“It buys us seven years, which is a substantial amount of time to make sure the next ownership team that comes in sees the benefit of keeping that team in Buffalo,” Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy said in Elmira on Wednesday. “We don’t want to lose them.”
But that is certainly a possibility.
The team’s founder and sole owner died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., on Tuesday and survived by wife Mary and two daughters. Wilson, however, expressed no interest of leaving the team to his family.
As a result, the original American Football League franchise is expected to be placed into a trust overseen by the executors of Wilson’s estate before being put up for sale. That opens the potential of the team being sold and relocated.
Los Angeles could be a landing spot. So would Toronto, where the Bills played annual regular-season games since 2008 before postponing their series last month.
“Well, I haven’t focused on that,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said when asked about the franchise’s future at league meetings in Orlando, Fla. “We know the terms of that lease. And we also know we have to find a long-term solution to keep the Bills there, and that’s what we’ll continue to work to do.”
Nonetheless, a list of ownership candidates has emerged to purchase a franchise valued at around $870 million. It’s not every day an NFL team goes on sale.
The list includes:
— Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly has made no secret that he has put together a group of investors to buy the team. Kelly’s health, however, has become an issue. The 54-year-old is preparing to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment following a recurrence of cancer.
— California-based bond fund manager Jeffrey Gundlach expressed interest in buying the Bills three years ago. Gundlach, who founded DoubleLine Capital, is a Bills fan and has ties to Buffalo.
— Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
— Two Toronto-based groups — Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment and Rogers Communications — have been mentioned as groups interested in buying the Bills with the intention of relocating them north of the border.
— New Jersey rocker Jon Bon Jovi has expressed interest in becoming an NFL owner, and is close with MLSE President Tim Leiweke.
— Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs or his immediate family can’t be counted out. Jacobs is from Buffalo, and his Delaware North food service company is headquartered in the city.
Jacobs’ NFL interests date to the late 1990s, when he failed in a bid to purchase the Browns in their return to Cleveland. NFL rules bar owners from running sports teams in separate markets, meaning Jacobs would either have to give up his holdings in the Bruins or, perhaps, have members of his family run the Bills.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz refused to speculate on what could happen after 2019. He is certain the Bills will continue playing in Orchard Park for the near future and believes it was always Wilson’s intention to keep the team in Buffalo.
“If we had ownership that wasn’t interested in it, (the lease) never would have happened,” Poloncarz said. “He put in place a provision that locks this team in for many years to come, even after his death. And that says a lot about his commitment to western New York and the fans of the Buffalo Bills.”
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in Orlando, Fla., and Associated Press writer Michael Hill in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.