The NFL community was heartbroken and shattered, when the news of Ralph Wilson’s untimely death arrived on March 25, 2014. For those who aren’t familiar with Ralph Cookerly Wilson Jr., he was the longtime founder and owner of one of the AFL’s original teams, the Buffalo Bills. At the seasoned age of 95, Wilson died of natural causes making him the oldest owner in the NFL and the second-longest tenured owner since George Halas of the Chicago Bears who surpassed him by 63 years. Wilson was also the last founding member of the AFL which merged with the NFL, 1970. Without Wilson, the sport would not be where it is today.
Wilson witnessed moderate success with the Buffalo Bills as a majority owner dating back to the team’s inaugural season in 1960. Since their inception, the Bills have qualified for the playoffs over 17 times, became the first team to win four conference championships, visit the Super Bowl on four consecutive occasions during the early 1990s, and, lastly, sent a vast number of tremendous athletes to the Football Hall of Fame such as O.J. Simpson and Andre Reed. However, in recent years the Buffalo Bills have lost their keen edge, especially upon arrival in the 2000s.
Since 1999, the Buffalo Bills are the only team in the NFL to have not yet qualified for the playoffs entering the 21st century. The Bills’ playoff drought currently stands at 14 seasons and the streak of losing seasons stands at nine, both of which are the longest active droughts in the league.
The last time the team documented a winning record was in 2004 when Mike Mularkey avasted the Bills to a 9-7 record leading the NFL in kickoff returns. This saddening streak the Bills have experienced has shown little to no signs of diminishing as the team hasn’t had a head coach since Dick Jauron to receive a contract extension beyond three years and a franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly who has taken the squad to the postseason.
In addition, the Bills have suffered a considerable string of heavy-handed attendance problems at Ralph Wilson Stadium, particularly encroaching into the later portions of the season, when Buffalo’s inanimate weather declines and the team typically falls out of playoff contention.
According to ESPN, out of 14 home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2010 and 2011, six match-ups were blacked out due to the failure to sell out. With Wilson’s recent passing, it’s difficult to imagine the team’s future becoming anything less than grim.
The looming news of relocation has haunted the Bills since the beginning of April and with the stadium’s new lease sitting roughly around $200 million with punitive $400 million buyout option, the franchise’s existence in Orchard Park, Buffalo could be in limbo. With that being said, Wilson’s widow, Mary, is now in control of the team’s trust holding after her husband’s death, creating further assumption that the state of the franchise has become relatively unclear.
The team is expected to enter the open market in 2015 and thus far a handful of noteworthy corporate figures and business moguls have expressed interest in purchasing the Bills. Even long before Wilson’s departure, musician, Jon Bon Jovi and former Bills quarterback, Jim Kelly have expressed their impulse to keep the Bills in Western New York. Kelly in particular told the media that he wants to run the Bills’ front office once the team’s trust was available. Among the candidates that stand out notably is renowned investor and tycoon, Donald Trump, who has exceeded public opinion both negatively and positively.
Trump’s desire to purchase the Bills could potentially open an avenue to newfound prosperity the squad hasn’t seen since the 1990s, considering his boundless knowledge in economics and his expertise as an oligarch and the chairman of the Trump Organization. The Bills have been a team on demise since the beginning of the 21st century and poor ownership, small marketing, and the mismanagement of personnel have set the franchise back for quite some time. As of 2014, the Bills have installed 13 starting quarterbacks, hired seven head coaches, rotated six general managers, and have amassed an ugly record of 94-136. Those are not statistics fans and owners expect to see from a national football club. What the Bills need is a fresh face – a leader who can make the appropriate football transactions and generate revenue into a ghostly Ralph Wilson Stadium that has hosted only one Sunday night game since 2009. The fact that Trump has had previous experience in operating a professional sports team makes “The Apprentice” host even more qualified to own the struggling Bills especially since Trump once had star running back, Hershel Walker, in his back pocket when he maintained the New Jersey Generals. Being a highly savvy, wholesale mind, Trump’s moxie certainly outperforms Kelly and Bon Jovi. Trump’s credentials in limited liability, real estate, resort licensing, and entertainment media speaks volumes above any venture Kelly and Bon Jovi have forgone. However, Trump’s extravagant lifestyle and outspoken manner have convinced the NFL that they are still distasteful about their former relationship.
Trump and the NFL have shared a rather contentious history as far as the eye can see. In 1984, the sources from the USFL confirmed that Trump acquired the New Jersey Generals from Chuck Fairbanks and J. Walter Duncan. The league believed that the teams based in the nation’s two largest markets were owned by the owners with the deepest pockets which made Trump a subject of publicity given his enormous wealth. Trump and fellow Los Angeles Express owner, J. William Oldenburg drew national attention as the USFL’s biggest spenders as both went on a notorious signing spree in the 1984 offseason. During his maiden year as majority owner of the New Jersey Generals, Trump poached a large number of highly-regarded collegiate players as well as several NFL starters, including Cleveland’s QB Brian Sipe. This combined with a general lack of quality quarterbacks and running backs tipped off another explosion in league spending as USFL teams practically raided the NFL and college ranks just to keep ahead.
With the new wave of teams, an assortment of college stars such as Marcus Dupree, Mike Rozier, Reggie White, Steve Young and even Buffalo favorite, Jim Kelly signed high dollar contracts to play for USFL teams in 1984, as they did manage to lure high profile NFL stars like Doug Williams, Joe Cribbs, and Gary Barbaro.
In 1984, the league began discussing the possibility of competing head-to-head with the NFL by playing its games in the fall beginning in 1986. Despite multiple protests of many of the league’s “old guard,” who wanted to stay with the original plan of playing football in the spring months, the voices of Chicago Blitz owner, Eddie Einhorn and Donald Trump, would eventually prevail. Trump and Einhorn argued that if the USFL shifted to the fall schedule, it would ultimately force a merger with the NFL in which the older league would have to accept at least some of USFL’s various conglomerates. They sold a majority of ownership stakes on the gamble that if a merger did indeed occur; the surviving teams’ original beleagurement would more than double.
A consulting firm recommended sticking with a spring season. Nevertheless, on October 18, 1984, the league’s owners voted 12-2 to go along with Einhorn and Trump’s idea and begin playing a fall season in 1986. The spring advocates had lost, and the fall advocates now set their sights on forcing a merger with the NFL, or at the very least, winning a sizable settlement and securing a TV network for fall broadcasts. Spring football had been replaced with an incredibly risky gamble for a huge return. As a direct result of this decision, the Pittsburgh Maulers ultimately folded rather than compete with the Steelers, the sale of the struggling Washington Federals to Weiser’s Miami-based ownership group dissolved, the well supported Philadelphia Stars and the New Orleans Breakers carried out relocation. Then the 1983 champion Michigan Panthers surprised the commissioner with an announcement that they would not be playing in Michigan for the 1985 season. With an expectation of fall play in 1986, Einhorn decided not to field a team for the final lame duck spring 1985 season. Within a few weeks of the decision, the USFL had been forced to abandon four lucrative markets, abort a move to a fifth and suspend operations in a sixth. In hindsight, this destroyed the USFL’s viability.
In 1986, the USFL, having recently decided to compete directly with the NFL, filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the National Football League. The NFL was found to have violated anti-monopoly laws. However, in a victory in name only, the USFL was awarded a judgment of just $1, which under anti-trust laws, was tripled to $3.2 million. When it folded, the USFL had lost over $163 million. In another effort to keep themselves afloat while at the same time attacking the more established National Football League, the USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the older league, claiming it had established a monopoly with respect to television broadcasting rights, and in some cases, the access of stadium venues.
The USFL claimed that the NFL had bullied ABC, CBS, and NBC into not televising USFL games in the fall. It also claimed that the NFL had a specific plan to eliminate the USFL, the “Porter Presentation.” In particular, the USFL claimed the NFL conspired to ruin the Invaders and Generals. The USFL sought damages of $567 million, which would have been tripled to $1.7 billion under antitrust law. It hoped to void the NFL’s contracts with the three major networks. The USFL proposed two remedies: either force the NFL to negotiate new television contracts with only two networks, or force the NFL to split into two competing 14-team leagues, each limited to a contract with one major network.
The case went to trial in the spring of 1986 and lasted approximately 42 days. On July 29, a six-person jury solidified a verdict that devastated the USFL, even though it technically won its case. The jury declared the NFL a “duly adjudicated illegal monopoly,” and found that the NFL had willfully acquired and maintained strong monopoly status in professional football through predatory tactics. The jury found that the USFL had changed its strategy to a more risky goal of merger with the NFL. Furthermore, the switch to a fall schedule caused the loss of several major markets. It has been established that Trump specifically wanted to force a merger knowing that the majority of teams would be eliminated.
Trump’s presence in the NFL could be a smashing success or a colossal disaster waiting to happen. He appears very adamant about keeping the Bills in western New York and he does possess the tangibles of engineering a sports franchise, but so many things could go wrong with Trump pulling the strings. The Bills have limited salary cap space with $16.44 million and given Trump’s net worth of $3.9 billion as well as his sudden urge for a winning franchise, the Bill’s small budget may not accommodate Trump luxurious philosophy.
Trump’s image is something that could strongly benefit the Bills, but his racial allegations, foul nature, and unfocused schedule may not be what the city of Buffalo is looking for in an owner. He already developed rift with the NFL in the 1980s and this bitter tension could carry over into the present day if Trump becomes the bidder of the Bills. Only time will tell who the Bills future torchbearer is and as 2015 lurks around the corner, this attainment could make or break the Buffalo Bills as we know it.
Drew Mattiola is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RM814408@wcupa.edu.