Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. sat down with The Buffalo News last week for a wide-ranging discussion on the state of his team. Here is the interview, conducted at the NFL owners' meetings in Orlando, Fla.
QUESTION: You need to sell $11 million worth of luxury suites and premium seats for 1999 to ensure the team stays in Buffalo five years beyond the '98 season. Do you think it's likely that enough of them will be sold to satisfy that part of your new lease agreement?
ANSWER: I think it's likely, but it's not a done deal. We're working hard. We need the help of the business community, we need the help of the media, we need the help of the state. Nobody can do this all by themselves. We cannot do it all by ourselves. And if we don't get a lot of help, it won't be successful. Hey, it takes that in a town that doesn't have a team. It's a very different story in a town that has a team. People say, 'Hey, we've got a team anyway. Why should we do this and that?' Back in the late 1950s, there were 10,000 people in the streets of Buffalo ready to buy tickets for professional football because they didn't have a team. And I hope the people appreciate it, because should they lose this team, there won't be another one.
Q: You have commitments so far for less than half of the "red" premium seats for '99. Why do you think sales of luxury suites have been so much stronger than sales of premium seats?
A: All of the 164 luxury suites will be gone because they're in a good location. The newer ones are in a fantastic location. As far as the premium seats, I can understand people, who have been sitting in a seat for $40, and then they're asked to pay somewhere between $400 to $800 (for an annual license fee), to be disturbed. But they must understand that there's no personal seat licenses like in these new stadiums in Charlotte, Baltimore, and Cleveland, where they have to pay $3,000 or $4,000 to get the seat, and then pay for a ticket on top of it each year. And they're going to have a lot of amenities. It's going to be like joining a golf club. You're not going to a public course. You're going to a private club . . . where you don't need starting times.
Q: How important is the sale of premium seats to the team's future in Western New York?
A: We have to have about 7,000 of those seats sold (out of 8,800) to get enough revenue to be economically viable in this new era of professional football. It's certainly not going to take us up to the Cowboys or some of these other stadiums. But if we can sell these seats, we will be probably in the middle of the lower half of the league. And that will keep us competitive when you're paying out Ted Washington's contract (worth $27.3 million).
Q: Do you expect the pace to pick up?
A: I think, for the individuals that don't buy them, we'll have the corporations throughout the state that will. I talked to Gov. Pataki the other day on the phone, and he is very anxious for this program to be successful. He said, 'Any help I can give you, I will. We want the Bills in New York, we want to help you, and we want this to be successful.' I said, 'So do I.' My No. 1 priority and challenge is to make this successful.
Q: How are renewals going for season tickets?
A: They're off of last year's number, which was about 35,000. We'll be off of that somewhat, although I don't know how far off. And I think a big reason for it is that there is some confusion over these new club seats. A lot of people who haven't renewed are in that red zone, and they think their seats are going to be taken away from them this year. But they're not going to be taken away this year. It's next year when all of that takes effect.
Q: What are your plans for the naming rights now available for Rich Stadium?
A: We're going to wait and see what happens with this whole lease situation. Why jump in and name something until we have this thing solidified? I'm not big on the idea of selling those rights. I go into Qualcomm Stadium or Pacific Whatever. It just takes away from the game. I think (Bengals president) Mike Brown is going to name the new stadium in Cincinnati after his father (the late Paul Brown). It gives you a sense of the league and people who have contributed so much to starting the league. The history of the league is more important to me than selling some hot dog product.
Q: How do you feel about the direction the team is headed on the field?
A: I think we're going the right direction. Wade (Phillips) knows what he's doing. I think we're going to have a competitive team. I think we're going to have an exciting team. We're going through a transition period, but I think we're going to be competitive. We've done what we can in free agency, and now we're going to draft.
Q: Do you think you have made enough right moves to improve on last year's 6-10 finish?
A: Oh, yeah. I think so. If we had any offense last year, we'd have been in the playoffs. We just didn't have any offense. And I couldn't figure out what we were trying to do. It's the worst scheme I've seen in all my years of watching pro football.
Q: Was re-signing Ted Washington as much of a no-brainer as it seemed?
A: We lost Bryce Paup (to Jacksonville) and Jeff Burris (to Indianapolis), so we had to have him. He's a great player. But you can't keep all of them. The money for Jeff just kept going up and up and up. It got to a $3.8 million-per-year average . . . then $3.9 million . . . then $4 million.
Q: What was your reaction to Bruce Smith's comments that, in light of the Washington deal, you should adjust the contract you gave him last year so he's back on top of your payroll?
A: With Bruce, he's a different guy, but he's such a great player. And any controversy won't be helpful.
Q: Did you make the Washington deal with the idea of having to turn right around and give Bruce another raise?
A: Are you kidding? It's all timing. It's like selling a stock at 60 -- which you've made a hell of a profit on -- that eventually goes to 90. I've done it all my life. I sell a damn stock and then it goes way up. One year I sold Pillsbury stock, and three weeks later, they merged with a big British outfit and it cost me $1.3 million. Everything in life is timing.
Q: What was it about Rob Johnson that you liked so much to give Jacksonville first- and fourth-round draft picks for him?
A: He's big and he's tough and he can throw the ball. I think he's going to be really good. On the other hand, poor Todd Collins. He took the worst of it last year in that system we had. I mean, he's much better than he showed last year. He didn't start out too bad. He didn't start out too bad the year before. But in that system, he had no chance. And I think that the poor guy got discouraged.
Q: Do you think Collins could be a good backup behind Johnson?
A: Oh, definitely.
Q: How do you feel about the prospect of an expansion NFL team in Toronto at some point in the future?
A: I think it's going to be a great idea. There's interest in Canada for the NFL.
Q: But wouldn't that be a threat to a very important part of your territory?
A: Well, now, yeah. But by that time, we'd hope that the thing would get going in Western New York. In the interim, we're looking for help from Toronto in terms of suites. And that would help their (expansion) cause in front of the other owners.
Q: You often have talked about the wild spending on player salaries. How much longer do you think it will continue?
A: The extension of the collective bargaining agreement gives us stability and caps some of those future years. And those capped years are going to curtail spending. I don't think there will be the explosive spending in future years as there has been this year. But this can be a tough business for individual owners. Baseball's now dealing with Rupert Murdoch (the new owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers). We're dealing with (Seattle Seahawks owner) Paul Allen, who can buy Murdoch out. You've got some big spenders in there.