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Goodell not yet focused on future of Bills after Wilson's death

Rochester Business Journal
March 26, 2014

The National Football League does not want the Buffalo Bills to leave for another city under new ownership and is working to prevent relocation, Commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday. 

Goodell, a native of Jamestown in the Southern Tier, also talked about a potential franchise in Los Angeles and the viability of separate franchises in Buffalo and Toronto during a 15-minute news conference at the NFL’s annual meeting of owners and top executives.

The news conference came a day after Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. died at his home in suburban Detroit. He was 95.

“I haven’t focused on that,” he said when asked about the future of the Bills in Buffalo. “Obviously, my thoughts and my heart are with the Wilson family. That’s not something I’ve spent any time on in recent days.

“We all know they have a lease. We know the terms of the lease. And we also know we have to find a long-term solution to keep the Bills there, and that’s what we’ll continue to work to do. But that’s not our priority right now in the next few days.”

The Bills have a 10-year lease agreement with Erie County and New York State to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium. They are bound to stay until at least 2020 or pay a $400 million penalty. The penalty is $28 million if they leave in 2020 or during the last two years of the contract.

The stipulations are in place no matter who owns the team.

Wilson founded the Bills’ franchise in 1959, paying $25,000 for the rights, and helped launch the American Football League in 1960. He was a principal figure in the AFL’s merger with the NFL in 1970.

The franchise is worth $870 million now, Forbes magazine estimates.

Wilson made no plans for the Bills to stay in Buffalo upon his death. The franchise will be placed in a trust for the time being, sources told the Buffalo News. It is expected to eventually be sold.

Toronto, the site of one home game per season in recent years, and Los Angeles are considered to be possible relocation targets for the Bills when they are sold.

Goodell discussed both cities yesterday in answering questions unrelated to the Bills and their owner, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

“We’ve been very open that if we had the right opportunity to be back in Los Angeles, with the right formula—meaning a stadium, most importantly—we know that there are millions of fans who want a team there,” he said.

“We would love to do that. But it has to be successful. We’re going to do it right if we do it. There are different proposals that are out there, and different opportunities, but not one that we’re focused on and say we have the right solution yet. We’re not there.”

Toronto and southern Ontario have been the objects of affection for Bills marketers in recent years. But the annual regular-season game there has been suspended for 2014 and the Bills may decide to end the series because of the absence of a home-field advantage.

Asked whether a franchise in Buffalo and another in Toronto could co-exist, Goodell was non-committal.

“I’m not sure I’ve studied that enough to know,” he said of the two cities. “They’re close from a proximity standpoint. There are fans that come from Toronto, and there are fans that go from Buffalo up to Toronto.

“They’ve worked very hard in Buffalo, and obviously Western New York and southern Ontario, to regionalize that team, to attract from a broader area. And that’s healthy for the team. They’ve drawn significantly more—in large part through that series—more fans from southern Ontario and the Toronto area.

“Again, that’s important, and something we want to encourage.”

But Goodell’s focus Wednesday as it pertained to the Bills was on Wilson.

“Yesterday was a sad day for the NFL, and for a lot of us in the NFL,” he said. “He was a special man and, as someone coming from Western New York, I know how much he did for the Western New York region. And I also know what he’s done for the NFL, just having seen it first-hand.

“As a commissioner, he was a great owner. He was the kind of guy who was principled. He was strong. He understood when to compromise. He’s going to be missed by the NFL, and by me personally.”

Goodell called Wilson’s wife, Mary, Tuesday night to offer condolences and plans to attend the funeral.

“He’s someone that deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” Goodell said. “He has really done incredible things for the league, for pro football in general.  That’s something that will be a great legacy for him.”

(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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