Today, NFL fans mourn the loss of a legend who revolutionized the landscape of professional football. Ralph Wilson Jr., owner of the Buffalo Bills, passed away from natural causes in his home on Tuesday at the age of 95. Wilson was not only the founder of the Bills, but also a founding member of the one time NFL rival, American Football League. He was the financial visionary that introduced revenue sharing to help struggling AFL teams meet ends, and once they did, and began to truly compete with the NFL, Wilson was instrumental in the merger between the two leagues. He not only made football work in a small market, but fielded a competitive team that made an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. And in 2009, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, ensuring that Ralph Wilson Jr. will never be forgotten in the world of football.
A one time minority owner of the Detroit Lions, Wilson longed for something more. He had heard that future Kansas City Chiefs’ owner Lamar Hunt had plans to create a professional football league to rival the NFL, and so he looked to get on board. Wilson first went to Miami looking to start a team but was turned away. So, he took off for Western New York and in 1959 the Buffalo Bills were born in the new American Football League. The AFL struggled in the beginning as many franchises were losing money. Wilson, out of a love for football, and a desire to keep the league going, loaned money to struggling franchises on several occasions, the most significant amount being $400,000 to the Oakland Raiders. Eventually, Wilson came up with the idea of revenue sharing in order to bring the league together and stay afloat as they tried to show that they were just as good a product as the NFL. After several seasons, and a few television deals, the AFL started to change the public’s perception that they were inferior, and when a bidding war for players began between the two pro leagues, the NFL came knocking to discuss a merger. Had it not been for Ralph Wilson’s investment in the AFL it is very possible that the league could have folded, and that the NFL might not be the juggernaut that it is today. In fact, revenue sharing is still very much a practice used by the NFL today, adding yet another reason why Wilson will never be forgotten.
But there is a specific bunch that holds a special place in their heart for Ralph Wilson Jr., and they are the faithful fans of the Buffalo Bills. In an age where sports is a business first and the idea of small market teams is nearing extinction, Wilson never let go of his beloved Bills. He chose Western New York all those decades ago and he refused to leave, no matter the cost. With constant whispers of franchises relocating to Los Angeles, or Las Vegas, or even recently London, the Bills owner never wavered. Instead, he reached out to the extended Bills’ nation across the border in Toronto, trying to find new ways to make it work in the 21st century. That is the fine character of a man dedicated to his team, its fans, and its town.
Under Wilson’s direction the Bills won two AFL championships from 1964-65, and made an unprecedented four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl in the 1990s. They have fielded Hall of Famers such as O.J. Simpson, Billy Shaw, Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed. Wilson remained a passionate, outspoken owner right to the end, and very few have ever put a stamp on pro football quite like he did.
He made pro football work in a small market for many decades, he influenced countless football minds, and he has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A successful businessman, husband, father, Hall of Famer, and proud NFL owner, for all his achievements to the sport and beyond, Ralph Wilson Jr. will never be forgotten.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky