Ralph Wilson Jr., the founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills, has died, team president Russ Brandon announced at the NFL Annual Meeting on Tuesday. Wilson was 95 years old.
“No one loved the game of football more than Ralph Wilson,” said Brandon.
He brought major-league sports to Buffalo in 1959, when he joined a group that became known as “The Foolish Club,” made up of eight businessmen led by Texas oilman Lamar Hunt, who founded the American Football League. The initial cost to Wilson was $25,000, and it was considered a risky venture to challenge the established National Football League.
The investment became a stroke of genius, as pro football blossomed into America’s favorite sport. Wilson’s team is valued today at roughly $870 million, based on estimates by Forbes Magazine. The Bills arguably are the single most-identifiable and unifying institution in Western New York.
“The strength of the Bills franchise is the passion of the fans,” Wilson said after signing a 15-year lease deal in 1997. “Buffalo is a community of down-to-earth, hard-working 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.”
He was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 and was the longest tenured active owner.