In 1959, $25,000 went a long way. You could buy a home or two, outright, with that loot. You could also buy about five Lincoln Continental cars. Ralph Wilson, who died yesterday at the age of 95, used that sum to buy the Buffalo Bills football team.
Today, the Bills are worth $870 million. Wilson's ROI is so preposterously huge that it's easy to overlook what a visionary entrepreneur and risk-taker he was in 1959. History could (wrongly) judge him as someone who jumped on the National Football League bandwagon at the right time--rather than someone who had a shrewd eye for an undervalued entity, and the guts to buy it.
Challenging the Big Guys
The truth is, buying a football team was no sure thing in 1959--especially the team that Wilson bought, which was not a part of the NFL. Read that last sentence again: When Wilson bought the Bills, they were not a part of the NFL, which was already America's marquee league for professional football.
In fact, the Bills were part of an upstart eight-team league--the AFL--that sought to challenge the NFL's dominance. Then, as now, you were largely ridiculed if you even considered battling the market might of the NFL. The eight original AFL owners even dubbed themselves "The Foolish Club." Veteran football scribe Peter King explains why in his Wilson tribute for Sports Illustrated's MMQB site:
Few thought there was an appetite for two football leagues. A foolish investment, many thought...particularly when Wilson had to subsidize one of the teams in the league with a $400,000 loan in 1962. That team was Oakland. Imagine the Oakland Raiders folding. Imagine the Raiders not getting resuscitated. That'd be like telling the history of rock music without the Rolling Stones. Without Wilson's intervention, the Raiders might have been a Polaroid memory, a modern-day Providence Steam Roller.
All this was four years before the term "Super Bowl" was even coined as a catch-all term for the title contest. From 1962-1966, both leagues had separate finals that were simply known as Championship Games.
In short, at a time when many could've purchased an AFL team for a five-digit sum, Wilson actually did it. And that's not the only reason you should remember him.
Wilson's Leadership Lessons
From the dozens of tributes written on behalf of Wilson in the last two days, a picture emerges of a man who was the consummately respected business owner and company leader. Here are four testimonials:
- He was a trustworthy man of integrity. "A really good man, a decent man. Very important for the NFL--kept the Bills in Buffalo when he could have had very much better deals in many other places," notes Bill Polian on ESPN.com, who was the Bills' GM from 1985-1993. "But always said the Bills in his lifetime will never leave Buffalo, and he kept that word. He was a man of his word; you could take his word to the bank. You didn't need a contract with Ralph Wilson."
- He believed in loyalty to fans and cities. "He never voted in favor of a franchise relocation. He said owning a sports team isn't like owning a car dealership," writes King. "If the car dealership founders, it can be closed and consumers will find another place to purchase cars. But an NFL team--that's a public trust."
- He passionately paid attention to details. NFL Network reporter Ian Rapaport tweeted the following about Wilson, shortly after the news of his death: "Ralph Wilson called #Bills CEO Russ Brandon four days ago about a safety prospect he believed was a 3rd or 4th rounder. Amazing." You could argue that owners shouldn't meddle in personnel matters, but there's no denying that this tidbit illustrates Wilson's passion for his team.
- He was humble, and he treated everyone with respect. "One of the must humble guys that I ever met in my life," Bills running back C.J. Spiller told the NFL Network. "Down to earth. Doesn't matter if you're the starting quarterback or a backup. He always treated everybody the same. That's the thing that really stood out to me."