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Probing the uncomfortable (but crucial) issue about the Bills

Q.What's the latest on the Buffalo Bills' future here if Mr. Ralph Wilson, you know, "suddenly decides" he doesn't want to own the team anymore?

A.Nothing's a guarantee when ol' Ralph calls it a day.

The team's official stance is that Mr. Wilson alone handles that question. He once claimed his family wasn't interested; now he's not sure. Potential local owners aren't saying a word, and the sharks from out of town are circling One Bills Drive.

Certainly, we all wish Mr. Wilson another 80 years (he's 88), but the team hasn't reached the playoffs since 1999, and that has to take its toll on a man.

There's obvious anxiety about the Bills' future. You hope Ralph has a plan, but he's keeping that secret closely guarded. He could sell, transfer the team to his wife, let someone buy it from his estate, utilize tax-saving schemes; the list is endless. Since no single strategy is a front-runner, we'll explore options.

Ralph sells now: It's counter-intuitive, but if Ralph sells now he can control the price and purpose of the deal. Years ago Cincinnati Bengals owner Paul Brown sold shares of the team to then-president John Sawyer with the caveat his sons could buy them back later, which they did. Sure the IRS went to court, but the Brown family won, avoided the estate tax and still controls the team.

With NFL franchise prices climbing to $1 billion, Mr. Wilson could, say, sell below cost to a local ownership group with the stipulation the team remains in Buffalo. Mr. Wilson would then be immediately nominated for sainthood. The bad news: This is the least likely scenario. He's clearly on the record saying he would never do this.

Ralph's estate sells the team: The fun begins. If Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano and other investors make an offer, could extravagant bidding from competitors kill a deal? You bet. And an out-of-town buyer could try and move the team. Think back to the feeding frenzy among NFL suitors when the New Orleans Saints were flooded out of the Superdome.

San Antonio welcomed them with big smiles and fingers crossed. Los Angeles became an indifferent player again while Las Vegas, already disliked by the league and reeking of an all-night blackjack binge, combed its hair and pitched population and prosperity.

It's no secret cities want the NFL. Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue wrote off San Antonio as just another small market, and he never gave Las Vegas serious consideration. Los Angeles was always the obvious choice to inherit some hard-luck town's franchise.

But at the October owners' meeting, NFL owners learned construction costs for a new L.A. area stadium might reach $1 billion. After adding this outrageous number to the price for the team, (Forbes recently estimated the value of the Bills at $637 million), the NFL owners realized Los Angeles would have to wait.

At long last Buffalo had L.A. off its back.

Then Sports Illustrated writer Peter King claimed a "Canadian consortium" offered Saints owner Tom Benson $1 billion for his team with the suggestion they'd move it away, no strings attached. The Canadian press speculated this group might involve Ted Rogers of Rogers Communications, Toronto Blue Jays President Paul Godfrey and Larry Tanenbaum, a minority owner of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Everyone has denied involvement in the Saints deal, but some see these men as the only ones with the money and interest to make such an offer.

Still, Toronto would need an NFL mandated-minimum 65,000-seat stadium, a huge hurdle for Los Angeles. And many think a Canadian team would be a liability when it comes time for the NFL to negotiate higher TV revenue.

Ralph's wife takes control of the team: Remember, Ralph always maintained family control was off the table. Then, once the latest collective bargaining agreement was approved, he said, "Before, I was going to sell the team or something. I don't know now. This (the labor pact) has changed everything."

Whatever that means, if Ralph's wife Mary continued to run the team, she would not face the crippling estate tax which, for example, forced the Joe Robbie family to sell the Miami Dolphins.

The tax kicks in when children and other relatives pursue ownership.

The two likely options - Tom Golisano buys the team or Ralph's wife retains control - suggests the team stands a good chance of remaining in Buffalo for the near future. If I were a betting man, I'd put money on Mary. Why? I would think the thrill of running an NFL team, for all remaining Wilson family members, is still too tough to pass up. And it would buy time for the Bills' crack team of business advisers to limit the inevitable tax hit as Ralph's good friend, the late Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs, did years ago.

Then again, with the miserable way I bet on office football pools, I would take my prediction with a 5-pound bag of salt.

Tom Ragan is co-host of the Shredd and Ragan radio show on 103.3 The Edge. Send your questions to BQ, c/o First Sunday, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Or e-mail:

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