In chase for the Bills, Terry Pegula is the quiet bidder who will refuse to lose - The Buffalo News
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In chase for the Bills, Terry Pegula is the quiet bidder who will refuse to lose

For the sake of theater, they should meet in a barn and let the drama unfold like it did back in the old days. Imagine Donald Trump decked out in a $5,000 suit and his hair combed over, Jon Bon Jovi showing up with his groupies, and Terry Pegula sitting quietly with a piece of grass in his teeth.

Ideally, we would conduct the sale of the Buffalo Bills without confidentiality agreements, lawyers and prepared statements from politicians. We would call auctioneer Cash Cunningham to oversee the process while the rest of us kicked back and enjoyed the show.

This is a charade, anyway, so let’s do it right.

The only unknown is how high the price will climb before bidders eventually shake their heads and slip out the back door. Pegula will be the last man standing when all is said and done. For better or worse, he will be the Bills’ next owner because his desire to own them runs as deep as his pockets.

In situations like this, while Morgan Stanley sifts through preliminary bids and the community speculates about the outcome, it’s wise to embrace common sense. It should not be confused with financial sense. In fact, it could be quite the opposite once all the commas and zeroes are added up on the final price.

But that will be his problem.

Nearly every major variable in this equation leans toward Pegula in his quest to become an NFL owner. He’s prepared to pay considerably more than the small-market franchise is worth, which should satisfy Ralph Wilson’s estate. Plus, he has close ties to the community and will keep the team in Buffalo.

In other words, he’s willing to spend big money, stupid money, because he can. Bills Nation will rejoice until the euphoria fades and is replaced by the sobering realities of owning an NFL team. Buffalo fans, not to mention NFL owners, can only hope he learned from his dress rehearsal with the Sabres.

Preliminary bids submitted Tuesday for the Bills were confidential. If the estimates are accurate, Pegula was prepared to spend between $1.1 billion and $1.3 billion for a franchise that was recently valued at $870 million. All that told me was that Pegula was trying to scare away other bidders.

In truth, he’s prepared to spend more, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars more, in order to realize a lifelong dream.

Other investors either aren’t aware or grossly underestimate Pegula’s obsession with owning an NFL team, in this case the Bills. Long before he purchased the Sabres, people in his inner circle insisted that he had his eye on buying the Bills after Wilson passed. Now, he wants his hands on them.

It’s a great story, really, about a young man who worked in Pennsylvania mines, grew up and discovered a gold mine. Money may not grow on trees, but Pegula has proved it flows underground in the form of natural gas. He’s a businessman by trade, a diehard Buffalo fan at heart.

Pegula is a former season-ticket holder who lived in Orchard Park and spent many a Sunday afternoon in the parking lots along One Bills Drive. His professional success has fueled his personal passion since he became a millionaire, long before he sold his company and became a multibillionaire.

So what’s the magic number for the Bills?

Well, that’s the billion-dollar question.

Trump has already acknowledged publicly that he has little chance of purchasing the franchise. Trump paints financial pictures by the numbers. To him, transactions are either logical or not. He doesn’t make emotional decisions. Once the bidding war reaches a breaking point, he walks away and starts on his next project.

The Donald will hang around and see how the process plays out, but I’m guessing he’s already headed for the exit. If Pegula is willing to pay more than $400 million over the estimated value, Trump isn’t going to hang around for long. He’ll find other ways to invest his time and money and contribute to his fortune.

Bon Jovi and his collection of investors from Toronto have a different obstacle that will be difficult to overcome. It appears they have the money to compete with Pegula, but from the beginning there was a sense that keeping the Bills in Buffalo was a necessary, but temporary, cost of doing business.

Under the terms of the lease agreement, the Bills aren’t allowed to negotiate with an ownership group that would relocate the team until 2022. The Associated Press reported that Bon Jovi’s group looked into the costs of buying a NFL team and building a stadium in the Toronto area.

Wilson’s estate is looking to sell the franchise for the right price to the right person, not wind up in some messy lawsuit. They may not be required to sell to the highest bidder. The NFL has very little influence over who would own the team until it needs approval from other owners.

Tom Golisano didn’t submit a preliminary bid when Morgan Stanley opened its doors, but he may present a plan sometime this week. He appears to be somewhere between Trump and Pegula. He ran the Sabres like a business. He wants to see the Bills stay in town and to make money from them, but he also has a breaking point.

Remember, too, that Pegula ended up paying about $190 million for the Sabres, nearly $20 million more than the original price and more than they were valued at the time. Pegula was willing to spend more, but people in his inner circle were none too thrilled with their dealings with Golisano.

Pegula is unselfish, but he does have an ego. I’m sure he would take personal satisfaction from taking down Trump and Bon Jovi, two giants in their respective industries, and Golisano, from whom he purchased his first team. Anyone would take gratification from winning this high-stakes game.

Let’s not forget his financial reasons for wanting the team. He would still have money to contribute to a new stadium, say, near the downtown area he helped revitalize with his own money. He has the attention of state and local government and could practically name his price and location for new digs in Pegulaville.

The Bills may not make financial sense, but it all adds up to him. He has the highest threshold among prospective owners who have shown interest. He’s not going to allow others to outbid him. He’s the quiet man in the back of the room who will continue raising his hand until he wears down everybody else.

In the meantime, we’ll enjoy the show.


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