The NFL’s oldest and longest tenured owner, Ralph Wilson Jr, has died at the age of 95. Wilson was the founder of the Buffalo Bills in the AFL, and was instrumental in both the formation and early survival of the AFL and its subsequent merger with the NFL. Wilson, a World War II veteran—having served in the US Navy during the conflict—died of natural causes related to old age.
Born in 1918, Wilson became a successful businessman after the Second World War. Wilson’s football career started as a minority shareholder in the NFL’s Detroit Lions in the late 50’s. However, his goal was always to own a team outright. When he heard about Kansas City Chiefs founder Lemar Hunt’s plans to start a rival league to the NFL, Wilson was in. He founded the Bills in Buffalo, New York in what was considered by many too small a market to succeed.
Wilson was defiant, and helped build one of the most successful teams during the early years of the AFL, leading his team to back to back AFL Championships in 1964 and 1965. Wilson repeated that success during the early 1990s when the team were AFC champions for four consecutive years, playing in four consecutive Super Bowls, all of which they lost.
Wilson was a key part of the early success of the AFL, pioneering many of the policies which ensured its survival during the leagues early seasons. The very definition of a team player, he introduced ideas such as revenue sharing on TV deals and ticket sales which helped keep smaller teams, and the league as a whole, afloat.
Wilson was also instrumental in the merger of the NFL and AFL, which saw the upstart league eventually join the larger NFL in 1970. He was also a key figure in organizing the first Super Bowl a few years earlier.
Wilson was fiercely loyal, and proud of his team, even retaining the naming rights of the Bills stadium, and not signing them over to another entity, in spite of the obvious financial benefit of this. Wilson never relocated the team, always choosing to stay in the smaller Buffalo market. Although the team were regularly linked with moves away from the area, Wilson negotiated many deals throughout his life to keep the team in the city.
Wilson was also viewed as very progressive and outspoken, negotiating a long-term deal which saw his team play regular international games across the border in Canada, and regularly making his feelings known when he disagreed with league changes and policies.
At his death, Wilson was both the oldest owner in the NFL, and longest tenured, having owned the team for 54 years.
Wilson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, in recognition of his service to the league. Although he largely ceded the day-to-day running of the team to executives in the early 2000s, he still made his presence very much known, and his voice heard throughout both the Bills organisation, and the NFL at large.
Unlike the Detroit Lions, who’s long-time owner Bill Ford. Jr died earlier this year, Wilson did not intend to pass the ownership of the team on to his family, who have only had limited involvement in the running of the club. While the Lions passed to Ford’s widow Martha Ford, and his sons remain active in the daily operation of the team, the Bills organisation will be held in trust, and is expected to be sold to the highest bidder in the next two years.
It is unknown what, if any, effect this will have on the organisational structure of the team going forward.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Wilson’s family and friends at this time, and with all at the Bills organisation, to whom Mr. Wilson meant so much.