Ralph C. Wilson Jr.'s decision to buy into the American Football League seems like a visionary financial move 50 years after the fact.
Wilson's $25,000 investment -- his initial cost for the right to found the Buffalo Bills -- now is worth somewhere around $750 million.
Few in Wilson's hometown of Detroit, however, saw it as visionary in 1960.
"My friends thought I was a chump," Wilson said. "To some of them, it was like trying to challenge General Motors or Ford. Guys wouldn't drink with me at the bar. They would go stand in a corner and not speak to me."
In fact, Wilson's gamble had very little to do with making a shrewd investment.
Wilson saw his first NFL contest in 1934, when his father took him to see the Detroit Lions' inaugural game in that city. It was love at first sight.
"Football is a very, very exciting sport," Wilson said. "The excitement of it always has intrigued me. In so many cases, the outcome is in doubt until the last minute or two. Every play is a pressure play with me because, in football, every play is important. All it takes is one to beat you. ... I was enthused about the game, and I was determined to get a team."
Wilson said he didn't enter the sport to make money.
"I don't think anybody did. We went in because we loved the game."
Wilson's love of the game gets rewarded for all time tonight when he is inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Wilson, 90, has owned the Bills longer than George Halas owned the Chicago Bears or Art Rooney Sr. owned the Pittsburgh Steelers when those two football legends were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Halas and Rooney helped create the pro game, building it up from humble roots in the 1920s and '30s.
In his own way, Wilson also has had a dramatic effect on football, helping to shape what fans know today as the modern NFL.
Wilson joins the late Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt as the only original AFL owners in the Hall. Hunt founded the AFL. It was his idea.
Unlike Hunt, Wilson can't point to one single accomplishment on his resume that earned him admission into the shrine in Canton, Ohio, which is part of the reason it took so long for him to get elected. But after Hunt, he was the central figure in the survival of the AFL. His love for the game has dictated his leadership, his tough stands and his principled decisions over the past 50 years.
Wilson actually was the last man in "The Foolish Club," the group of eight original AFL owners.
Wilson was on vacation in Saratoga in 1959 when he read in the New York Times that Hunt was starting a new professional football league. Wilson had a 2.5 percent ownership stake in the Lions for the previous few years but it allowed for no managerial control and there was no expansion on the horizon for the NFL.
As Wilson recalls it, he immediately put in a call to Hunt at his home in Dallas and flew down there the next day.
"In those days, Lamar and his family were one of the wealthiest families in the world," Wilson said. "His father was in the oil business. They were a legendary family. I expected to walk into a big lavish office. But that wasn't Lamar. He just had a small office, very modest, as he always was. That was his personality. That appealed to me."
"There was a genuineness about Ralph," Hunt told the Dallas Morning News in 1990. "You didn't have a feeling that there was any con in him at all. You felt like this was a first-class guy."
Wilson paid his franchise fee and committed to putting a team in Miami, where he owned a winter home.
However, the City of Miami would not give Wilson a lease to play in the Orange Bowl, then Miami's only football stadium, because the Miami college team was against it and the city had lost money on the fledgling franchise in the All-America Conference pro league in 1949.
A couple of days later, Hunt called Wilson back.
"You have your choice of five cities," Wilson recalls Hunt saying. "He named Buffalo, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville and Atlanta."
Wilson called Ed Hayes, sports editor of the Detroit Times, and asked: "If you were dumb enough to put a team in a new football league that would become a challenge to the National Football League, what city would you pick?" Hayes said Buffalo. After some research and some salesmanship from then Buffalo News Managing Editor Paul Neville, Wilson committed to the city.
Said Wilson: "Finally I told him, 'I'll give it a go for three years if you'll give me your support for three years.' We shook hands, and that was it."
Wilson knew it would be tough to challenge the established NFL.
"We estimated our attendance and our expenses -- and we lost about $1.4 million our first three years," he said. "But we expected to. ... I don't think we could have lasted forever. We wouldn't have been economically competitive with the NFL. They had the big cities. We had Buffalo, Denver, San Diego, Kansas City."
Wilson very quickly asserted his influence on the AFL.
The Oakland Raiders were the league's weakest franchise from the start. The team had averaged only 8,400 fans a game its first two seasons, and principal owner Wayne Valley was on the brink of folding the team entering the 1962 season.
"Wayne and I had become good friends and he said to me, 'We have to shut down,' " Wilson said. "We've lost money and these fellas don't want to go along anymore. I'm the only one left."
Wilson loaned Valley $400,000 without telling the league office, since owning a stake in two clubs clearly was against league bylaws. The Raiders paid Wilson back by 1970.
"People looked on us as not having much of a chance anyway, and they would really jump on the bandwagon if one of the teams folded," Wilson said.
The AFL's league-wide financial fortunes hinged on its television deal. For its first five seasons, each team received about $100,000 a year from ABC. The NFL signed a deal with CBS paying each team a little over $1 million a year for the '64 and '65 seasons. The new AFL TV contract would be vital to its survival.
Wilson was a member of the AFL's three-man television committee. He was vacationing in Austria with Hunt at the '64 Winter Olympics when he got a long-distance call from Billy Sullivan, then owner of the Boston Patriots, who was talking to the networks.
"Billy said, 'I've got real good news for you,' " Wilson said. " 'NBC wants football because they didn't have it on Sunday. They're willing to give us $600,000 a team.' I thought to myself $600,000 against $1 million. I don't know that we can compete. I said, 'That's not enough. We need to go back and bargain.' Well, that floored him."
The AFL went back to negotiations, and with the help of Jets owner Sonny Werblin, got a deal worth $900,000 per team.
"It was a big decision," Wilson said. "We didn't expect to get as much money as the NFL but we had to get close in order to compete for the players. ... NFL found that out, they knew they had their hands full," Wilson said. "It hit the NFL that, 'Hey, these guys are really in business now. We're going to have a real war.' "
The AFL signed Joe Namath and Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte to huge contracts in 1965. But even as the war was heating up, some owners on both sides were thinking compromise.
Wilson was appointed by then AFL President Barron Hilton, the owner of the San Diego Chargers, to broach merger talks with the NFL.
"I knew that we could last awhile, but eventually the NFL was going to put us out of business," Wilson said. "They had more people in bigger markets and they still had more TV money. I went ahead and met 10 or 12 times with Carroll."
Wilson and Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom hammered out the framework of a deal that called for: a single league schedule starting in 1970, interleague preseason games starting in '67, a single commissioner (the NFL's Pete Rozelle), and an equal pooling of all TV money.
Wilson and Rosenbloom laid out the parameters to Rozelle and Dallas General Manager Tex Schramm at a lunch meeting.
"They brought up the fact that they wanted us to pay them to join them," Wilson said. "I said, 'Well, what do you want? Pete Rozelle said $50 million. I said, 'Forget it. I certainly can't sell that to our owners.' "
Almost a year later, after more big spending on players, the figure was negotiated down by Hunt and Schramm to $18 million. The leagues would merge completely in 1970.
>Voting his conscience
Wilson has served on virtually every NFL ownership committee over the years. He was instrumental in collective bargaining agreements with the players in the 1970s and '80s.
"Ralph has done as much or more for the league as a whole as he's done for his own club, and that's more than you can say for a great many teams," said Richard Berthelsen, general counsel of the NFL Players Association.
Wilson has fought hard over the years to defend the league's revenue sharing, which keeps the playing field relatively level for clubs.
In the landmark 1993 collective bargaining negotiations, Wilson was instrumental in creating an added revenue sharing pool -- one that includes relocation fees, seat-license money and club seat money -- that helps even out the revenue. It did not go only to small-market teams. It also went to some large-market teams that were locked into old stadium leases that gave them less revenue. That helped make it possible to get the votes for the CBA.
In the 2006 CBA deal, Wilson spearheaded an agreement that allows for the top 15 revenue-earning teams to fund a pool from which the lowest-earning teams draw.
"The sharing of revenue is really the foundation of the NFL, and it dates back to George Halas in the early days of the league," Wilson said. "It's what sets the NFL apart from the other leagues."
Wilson also has stood up for fans by voting against every franchise relocation that has come before the league.
The toughest vote for Wilson was when Cleveland proposed to move to Baltimore in 1995. Wilson was longtime friends with Browns owner Art Modell. He was sympathetic to the challenges the Browns faced. Their season ticket base was down to the 30,000 range. The old Cleveland Municipal Stadium was obviously below NFL standards.
As the 1995 season approached, Modell told Cleveland politicians that he was going to take some time off from negotiations in order to get through the season. They would talk again later. However, the deal with Baltimore came together in early November, and Modell announced he was moving.
It was a financial windfall for the NFL, and owners approved the move, 25-2. Buffalo and Pittsburgh were the only negative votes. The problem, from Wilson's perspective, was Cleveland fans never were given a final, fair chance to keep the team. He put that issue ahead of his friendship with Modell.
Of course, when it comes to franchise relocation, Wilson has walked the walk in Buffalo. He has stayed in Western New York and fought to compete, via regionalization of the franchise.
Wilson had opportunities to move. Before the stadium in Orchard Park was built in '73, Schramm told Wilson he would come to Buffalo to help pack the moving boxes. There were other more lucrative markets that the league could pursue.
"People become attached to the franchise," Wilson said. "They take their children to the game. So many people across the country I have met have said, 'My father used to take me to the games in old War Memorial Stadium in downtown Buffalo. We used to stand in the end zone.' The people in a community become attached to a team. It gives them a quality of life."
Wilson feels a great sense of pride when Buffalo fans tell him, "thank you" for keeping the team in Western New York.
"The strength of the Bills franchise is the passion of the fans," Wilson said. "Buffalo is a community of down-to-earth, hardworking families who, in large numbers, are also avid sports fans. You know how the people here feel about you because they are very straightforward. That is a quality I admire."e-mail: email@example.com