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Wilson, an owner that put league first

Posted Jan 30, 2009

As the Hall of Fame voting committee decides on the 2009 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction class this Saturday, Bills owner and founder Ralph Wilson will be one of just two finalists that was not a player. It’s certainly more difficult for non-players to gain entry, but there aren’t many NFL contributors with a credential list as long as Wilson’s.

“Even if I was not a Buffalo Bill, it’s hard not to (admire) what Mr. Wilson was able to do,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. “He’s a guy that has meant not only a lot to this organization, but a lot to the NFL.”

Wilson’s contributions to the game have been well documented, but rooted in all of the decisions he’s made is an unwavering commitment to what was best for the league.

In 1962 when he decided to loan the Oakland Raiders $400 thousand to keep the team solvent, it was done to maintain an eight-team AFL. If the league shrunk to seven teams, there would be an unbalanced schedule, along with the perception that the American Football League was beginning to show cracks in their foundation.

When Boston Patriots owner Bill Sullivan called Wilson to tell him that NBC had offered a $600 thousand per team television deal, the Bills owner dismissed it. Not because he and his AFL brethren were greedy, but because he knew the NFL had just secured a TV deal that would pay their teams just over $1 million. Without a better television contract, the AFL would struggle to compete.

Wilson and the other AFL owners eventually secured a deal from NBC that would provide each team with $900 thousand.

As President of the AFL in 1965, the Bills founder was instrumental in initiating talks of a merger with the NFL. His main impetus behind the initiative was to ensure the survival of both leagues with player salaries becoming more and more cost prohibitive to the bottom line.

In the 1970’s Wilson was a key voice on the NFL’s Management Council and an integral negotiator in avoiding a players strike in 1977.

Wilson has also served as the Chairman of the NFL Pension Committee, Labor Committee, Super Bowl Site Committee, NFL Expansion Committee and NFL Realignment Committee.

“He’s a man in the game who came into it for the love of the game, not for the rewards financially,” said Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy. “He contributed so much to the game, he’s been on every committee and part of many of the most major changes and moves that the league has made. If anyone ever deserves (induction), it’s Ralph Wilson.”

The Bills founder has also been a voice for the fan as he has been staunchly opposed to franchise relocation, voting against it every time a team has appealed to the league to do so. Being the only original AFL owner still operating his club in its original city is testament to this stance, and serves as a reminder that Wilson’s interests are more heavily invested in the game’s integrity than anything else.

“Ralph Wilson is an owner that has kept his team in Buffalo for the last 50 years,” said Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas. “He’s one of the men who got football started. Lamar Hunt was a great friend of his and Mr. Wilson deserves to be enshrined with him.”