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William C. Altreuter
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A couple of thoughts, or really probably notes and questions, on Ralph Wilson, former owner of the Buffalo Bills, now dead. It strikes me that the first response that most people around here had was to ask about the future of the franchise. Buffalo is a funny place-- people around here expect their public figures to be accessible, and for the most part they are. I see the mayor in Wegmans all the time. I've seen Jim Kelly having a catch with his brother in Delaware Park. Ryan Miller walked down Elmwood Avenue like Pablo Picasso. Back before he was a national scandal O.J. Simpson was around and happy to chat with anyone who said hi. Everyone you meet has a Carl Paladino story. The list goes on. My point is that this is a small city that has a very low threshold for pretension. I tell people that the place is more like a big room than anything else, that there are seldom as many as three degrees of separation. Wilson was different. Except for the people I know that actually work for the Bills organization-- or reporters that cover it-- I don't know anyone who knew Wilson, and that is unusual. He was, from all reports, a very private cat, uncomfortable with people he didn't know well. I do not think I ever read an interview with him that gave away any information more than the barest minimum-- and actually, probably, not even that. He was important because he supplied an important piece of the region's civic identity, but he didn't live here. He kept the team here, and we infer from that a number of things, but we don't, I think, know any of those things. He never left a clue as to what would happen with the team when he died-- except he said that it wouldn't stay in the family. For now it will be operated by a trust, which means, probably, that there won't be a lot of big free agent signings or other moves that might make the team more competitive. The lease pretty much locks the team in place through 2023, although there is no such thing as an unbreakable contract, (There is an out clause in the lease that allows the team a one-time option to buy out the final three years of the deal for a payment of only $28.4 million in 2020. Since a big part of the NFL's business model is built on the Greater Fool Theory that number might not be so hard to make.) The league is going to be pressing for a sale, and the trustees will have a fiduciary obligation to get the best price they can-- they aren't in the football business, they are in the business of selling a valuable asset.

And that's the really tricky part. It is nowhere written in the heavens that Pro Football shall always and ever be America's most popular spectator sport. A hundred years ago the most popular sports in the US were horse racing and boxing, and those have faded almost completely from the scene. How much longer does football have at the top? It is an expensive sport, which means that less affluent schools and less affluent families are less likely to support it. It is a brutal sport, which may mean that more affluent families will be less inclined to encourage their sons to play. It is a sport with very little prospect of attracting women athletes, and that is going to mean that schools are going to begin questioning why they are spending the sorts of resources necessary to field a team. It is no stretch to see that the talent pool is going to start drying up under those conditions. If I were one of the trustees of the Wilson estate I'd be working from the assumption that we are at or close to Peak NFL, and I'd be looking to move the property sooner rather than later.

It will be interesting to see how the probate process plays out-- we are going to learn a lot more about Ralph Wilson than we ever knew before.

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