What could Ralph Wilson’s passing mean for the Bills, the Argonauts and the CFL?

55 Yard Line

The news of Buffalo Bills' owner Ralph Wilson's death at the age of 95 Tuesday has sparked plenty of tributes to him, and deservedly so. Wilson founded the team in 1959, saw them through the AFL years, the AFL-NFL merger and everything since, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009. His death also leaves notable questions about what's next for the Bills, though, and those questions could have significant repercussions for Toronto, the Argonauts and the entire CFL, so they should be addressed.

There's plenty of uncertainty about just what will happen next with the Bills, as Wilson never publicly revealed a succession plan. There have been strong indications that Wilson planned to have the team sold following his passing rather than directly passed on to his heirs, though, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stating that in 2012. Now, a sale doesn't necessarily mean that the team will move; Goodell and other NFL officials have said they'd like to see the Bills stay in Western New York, and the 10-year stadium lease/renovation agreement the team signed in 2012 imposes a stiff $400 million penalty if the team tries to leave before 2020. However, with Wilson's death, one of the main reasons the Bills stayed in a small television market (the U.S.' 56th largest as of that 2012 story) with limited potential revenue is gone. Wilson was always committed to keeping the team in Buffalo; whoever the next owner is may not share that philosophy.

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If the team does eventually move, there will be no end of promising suitors, including Los Angeles and London. However, Toronto is also a potential destination, and it's one that will get substantial consideration given the city's proximity to Buffalo (allowing a move to be branded as a regional relocation, similar to how the 49ers just moved to Santa Clara), the Bills' substantial numbers of fans in Ontario, and their history of playing games north of the border (even though the future of that series is currently being reviewed and there won't be a game in Toronto this year). The Toronto area also has a well-heeled corporate market and a massive population, and it would allow the NFL to have an international presence. Perhaps even more importantly, there's a rumoured ownership group already in place, which would involve both wealthy rocker Jon Bon Jovi (a passionate football fan who previously owned an Arena League team in Philadelphia) and his buddies at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. A lot would have to be done in order to move the Bills to Toronto, including building a NFL-calibre stadium, but MLSE and other parties have plenty of interest in bringing American football to town. Now that there's a nearby team likely going up for grabs, the NFL-to-Toronto discussions could really take off.

What could all that mean for the CFL? Well, having the NFL in town will certainly hurt the Argos. That adds yet another competitor for sponsorships, ticket sales and merchandise sales, and one from an incredibly popular league with a colossal amount of money. If the Argos take massive financial and attendance hits, they might have to move or fold, and that in turn would drastically hurt the CFL. The league wouldn't necessarily die without a Toronto team given its popularity elsewhere, but it would lose substantial national sponsorship deals and television revenue, and it would be in a much weaker position.

However, having a NFL team in town wouldn't have to spell doom for the CFL. One key element to consider is the terms of engagement. The Bills' Toronto series has actually worked out well for the Argos, keeping the NFL's presence in town to one game a year and lowering the city's potential as a hot destination for relocation of another franchise (as the series has received lacklustre fan support and has also increased the Bills' claim to Ontario as their territory). If new Bills' ownership decided merely to revive and expand that series, perhaps playing even half of the team's home games in Toronto, that could be a workable solution that gave the team access to the Toronto market without being there full-time and really hurting the CFL.

Even a relocation wouldn't necessarily be disastrous, and ownership could play a key role there. There have been plenty of rumours about MLSE and/or MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum buying the Argonauts, who are definitely for sale by current owner David Braley, and MLSE is already very linked to the team through plans to expand BMO Field and have them play there. If the Argos wound up with a solid stadium situation and deep-pocketed ownership, they might be able to do well despite a full-time NFL team, and they could do particularly well if their ownership was closely connected to the NFL team's ownership; that would make them more partners than competitors, and could even lead to joint CFL/NFL promotions and ticket sales. It's still unlikely that the Argos would be better off with an NFL team in town, but they might not be hurt all that badly under the right circumstances.

This is all just speculation at the moment, of course, as the Bills haven't even been officially put on the block yet, much less found a buyer. They could wind up with an owner who's very happy with the status quo. Even if they are sold to an owner who wants to move, there will also undoubtedly be strong local and state efforts to keep them in Buffalo, and those efforts might well succeed. It's highly unlikely the team's going anywhere on a full-time basis before at least 2020 given their lease, and they might not move after that. However, Wilson's death does mean that one of the primary factors keeping the Bills in Buffalo is no longer in play. That doesn't mean they're inevitably headed to Toronto, but that possibility is looking stronger and stronger all the time.

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