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On Sports

Pegulas' purchase of Bills gives fans plenty to 'Shout!' about

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Rochester Business Journal
September 12, 2014

And so, after months of angst, uncertainty and torrid speculation, the billion-dollar question has been answered. Terry and Kim Pegula have been chosen by the trustees of Ralph Wilson’s estate to be the new owners of the Buffalo Bills. Fans throughout Western New York and beyond can breathe a sigh of relief and rejoice. The Bills, a tradition passed on from generation to generation like a cherished family heirloom, are staying put. So cue up the “Shout!” song, pull the Zubaz out of mothballs and pass the Labatt’s. This truly is a time for high-fives and hugs. Our worst fears have been allayed.

Yes, the National Football League owners still have to vet the Pegulas’ finances and vote them into the fraternity, but that seems a foregone conclusion—as certain to happen as an extra point. With a net worth in excess of $3.5 billion, the Pegulas—who made their fortune in natural gas development, commercial real estate and professional sports—have more than enough cash to consummate the deal, which reportedly has a price in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion. They also have the support of local business leaders and public officials because of their commitment to keep the Bills in our region. The Pegulas already have demonstrated a vested interest in downtown Buffalo through their ownership of the National Hockey League’s Sabres and their $170 million investment in the HarborCenter project. These folks clearly are bullish on Buffalo.

We’ve known for some time that the Pegulas were the leaders in the clubhouse. There was no way that billionaire bloviator Donald Trump would ever have been approved by the NFL owners, many of whom still remember how Trump brought an antitrust suit against the league when he owned the New Jersey Generals in the upstart United States Football League 29 years ago. They would have told The Donald, “You’re fired,” even before he was hired. And the Toronto group, fronted by rocker Jon Bon Jovi, fumbled its bid proposal from the get-go. News surfaced early in the process that Bon Jovi & Co. had looked at possible stadium sites in suburban Toronto, prompting him to write a letter to the Buffalo News in a feeble attempt to convince Bills fans that his group had no intention of relocating the team. Talk about a “shock to the heart.” Bon Jovi had given his bid campaign a bad name, from which it could not recover.

Still, we worried, as Western New Yorkers are wont to do, till the bitter end. We fretted that some unknown bidder would come out of nowhere and break our hearts like a field goal attempt sailing wide right. But this time our fears weren’t realized. The kick split the uprights. The Bills won’t be running a down-and-out-of-town.

I think the Pegulas will be good owners. Of course, their success will depend on having the right people. They aren’t going to find a more qualified person to handle the business end of things than current team president Russ Brandon. The St. John Fisher College graduate is a marketing guru, whose efforts to regionalize the franchise into Rochester and Southern Ontario have kept the Bills financially vibrant.

The football operations department obviously has left much to be desired. The revolving door of general managers and coaches has produced 14 consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance. The Pegulas will see how this season plays out before deciding the fates of GM Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone. If progress is being made, say at least an 8-8 record, they might opt to go another year with this duo. But if things go south, they will need to move swiftly and clean house—something they were too slow to do after purchasing the Sabres in 2011.

I would love to see them hire Bill Polian, the architect of the Bills and Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl teams, to oversee football operations. The Bronx-born Polian loves Western New York with heart and soul, and his work with ESPN the past two seasons has kept him in close touch with the NFL. The six-time league executive of the year remains one of pro football’s most astute talent evaluators. He has told me on several occasions he would love to get back into the game if the situation were right. The Buffalo situation would be perfect. I’d hire him in a New York minute.

Terry and Kim Pegula have done a marvelous job embracing the Sabres tradition, and I’d be shocked if they didn’t do the same with the Bills. Keeping Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Steve Tasker on the payroll as goodwill ambassadors is a no-brainer, a win-win-win proposition. The Pegulas will have to deal with the stadium issue in the not-so-distant future. But I feel more comfortable about this, too, given the commitment they’ve already shown. I can see them footing a good chunk of the bill for a new downtown stadium, thereby alleviating the load on taxpayers.

Before moving on to this next chapter of Bills history, let’s stop and praise the man who paid the Bills for 55 years. Ralph Wilson, who died in late March, brought the team here and kept it here. By agreeing to that stringent non-relocation agreement, he ensured that the team would remain here long after his death. It was Ralph’s parting gift to Bills fans and will remain a huge part of his legacy. Also, let’s give kudos to elected officials at the state and county levels for negotiating the deal that scared away bidders intent on moving the team.

This has been a giddy run of late for Bills fans. First, Kelly announces he is cancer-free. Then, Buffalo upsets the Bears in the season opener. And now Terry and Kim Pegula ensure that the Bills will be staying put for a long, long time. It’s enough to make Bills fans “Shout!” for generations to come.

You can listen to award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 95.7 FM, AM 950 or online at www.espnrochester.com. You can also watch him discuss the Bills on WROC-TV 8 Sunday mornings at 10:30 and after games.

9/12/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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