Will the next Bills owner move the team?

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Ralph Wilson guaranteed the Buffalo Bills would stay in Western New York as long as he was alive. But his death is already stirring up a lot of speculation about the team’s long-term future.

Wilson bet on Buffalo 55 years ago by paying $25,000 for the Bills in 1959, which would be around $200,000 in today’s dollars. Now, Forbes puts the team’s worth at close to $900 million.

It is well known that the NFL wants to move two teams to Los Angeles. And every time the topic of relocation comes up, several teams are mentioned. They include the Jacksonville Jaguars, the St. Louis Rams, the Oakland Raiders, the San Diego Chargers and the Buffalo Bills.

The question is, how likely is it the next owner will move the team out of Western New York?

“If you want to make a fortune in football, you either have to sell or die. And I’m not interested in either one of those,” Ralph Wilson said 16 years ago, taking a look into the future.

At the time, he said his hope was that whoever buys the team after he dies will keep the team in Buffalo.

“I have always been against relocation,” Wilson said in the 1998 interview.

Now, following Wilson’s death, the team will be placed in a trust. And eventually, it will be sold, although we don’t know if Wilson made conditions.

“You can make specific rules that affect how you want it to be handled. Whether it should be sold in a certain fashion. Those kinds of things,” said attorney Gregory Pope of the Pope Law Firm.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a Jamestown native, has said several times he sees the Bills in Buffalo for a long time. Here’s what he said in 2008 when asked about the team’s future after Ralph Wilson:

“We work to make sure franchises stay in a current market. Just because someone spends the most money to buy a team does not give them the right to move it. They have to meet certain relocation guidelines that are very strict and important to the league, and they need three-quarters vote. So it’s not the highest bidder takes the team where they want. We have ownership transfers all the time,” Goodell said while at the Chautauqua Institute in 2008.

Some businessmen with ties to Western New York have said they’d step in and buy the team if relocation was a serious risk, such as Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who legally could own the Sabres and the Bills. And here’s what former Sabres owner Tom Golisano said in 2008:

“I as a citizen and someone involved on the financial side of it would do what I could to keep the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo.”

And many see the biggest thing keeping the Bills in Buffalo right now as the current lease for Ralph Wilson stadium, negotiated by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. It includes a $400 million penalty if someone tries to move the team before 2023. If someone wants to move the team in the year 2020, it would cost them just $28.4 million to get out of the 10-year lease.

By that reasoning, other teams would be “easier” to move than the Buffalo Bills.

San Diego has an out clause in its lease every year. So right now they’re only committed through this year. The Oakland Raiders are also only committed through this upcoming season. The St. Louis Rams can break their lease in 2015, plus the owner just bought land in Los Angeles. Jacksonville has a situation similar to Buffalo, where it would cost them $100 million to break their lease and move.

Buffalo also faces a challenge from Toronto, which has businessmen interested in purchasing an NFL team. The biggest problem for them is television ratings in Canada don’t count in the United States, so the rest of the owners in the league wouldn’t make as much money from a Canadian team.

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