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How he played the game

In a 1998 interview with this newspaper, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. acknowledged that some of the team’s fans thought he was greedy. He disagreed.

“If all I wanted to do was make money, I would sell the team,” he said. Indeed, he regretted that some of the more recent buyers of National Football League franchises were “more business owners. I don’t know if they are as passionate about the game.”

No one ever questioned Mr. Wilson’s passion for the game or for the Bills. After his death this week at age 95, many people referred to him as the team’s “No. 1 fan.”

That, along with his commitment to Western New York over more than a half-century, endeared him to many. But a full appreciation of Mr. Wilson should include recognition of the qualities he exhibited as a business owner.

One of them was being as good as his word. When the team’s Super Bowl head coach Marv Levy retired, he said the Bills owner was “a man of incomparable integrity whose word is gold.”

Mr. Wilson also was someone who was not afraid of risk. His biggest gamble, of course, was joining “the Foolish Club”—a group of eight investors who created the American Football League as a challenger to the well-established NFL.

The Bills owner was a visionary long before that term became common—and overused—in business. He helped keep the fledgling AFL alive by investing in or lending money to a pair of competing franchises, and he played a key role in pivotal early TV contract negotiations and talks that led to the NFL-AFL merger.

In short, Mr. Wilson helped make pro football the nation’s most popular spectator sport—and along the way turned his initial $25,000 investment into a franchise worth an estimated $870 million.

Most importantly, Mr. Wilson believed the Bills should not be reduced to profit alone. (Good thing: Even during the team’s Super Bowl run, the Bills required subsidies from his other businesses.)

In a way, he viewed himself as a co-owner of the Bills.

“The teams are really community teams,” he said. “(The franchise) really belongs to the community.”

That premise might be put to the test in the future. But let’s hope those who control the team’s fate will approach that responsibility by asking, “What would Ralph do?”

3/28/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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