Stop fretting about plans for the Bills to play a few games in Toronto. Set aside the dueling quarterback discussion. One issue about our pro football team looms larger than any other: What Ralph Wilson will do -- if anything -- to ensure that the team stays here after he is gone.
I know this is a sensitive subject with the Bills' 89-year-old owner. But it does no good to ignore the leak in the football. Recent talk of games in Toronto was a reminder: The team's long-term future lies in the hands of its sole owner.
The Bills are a family business. Wilson's decision is a family matter. But the extended family also should be considered.
Fans supported the team for 47 years of fall Sundays. Taxpayers propped up a profitable franchise in recent years with more than $125 million in stadium improvements and lease givebacks. Yes, Wilson kept the team here -- but only by setting terms for stadium updates and luxury-seat sales that this community met.
Wilson can thank the fans, repay community support and acknowledge that the Bills are bigger than any one of us. He can do it by making sure the team stays after he is gone.
I do not think it is too much to ask. This community has been good to him and his football team. It would be nice if he returned the favor in a big way.
There are several ways he can keep the Bills in Buffalo. The easiest is simply by leaving the team to his wife, Mary -- if she wants it. The "spousal exemption" allows Wilson to pass along a team worth $600 million to his spouse while avoiding a crippling estate tax bill.
It does not work this way if Wilson leaves the team to his daughters. To pay a $270 million inheritance-tax bill, they would have to sell the team -- likely to a deep-pockets suitor in a mega-tropolis.
Wilson seemed open at one point to leaving the team to his wife. Asked about it at a news conference in April 2006, he replied: "I don't know about my family. I haven't decided."
Unfortunately, he rejected the spousal inheritance idea in a June interview with Buffalo News sportswriter Mark Gaughan, saying, "I think she's capable and she could do it, but it would be tough."
It might be tough, but it would be a move celebrated in a place that Wilson has been part of for nearly a half-century. By keeping the team in the family, he also would keep it in the extended family of Western New York.
"[Wilson] is very appreciative of the fans and has an affinity for Western New York," said Erkie Kailbourne, a business executive who led 1990s efforts to regionalize the Bills. "He is very proud of what he built here and what it means to the region."
If Wilson has a soft spot for Western New York, now is the time to show it. I hope he re-examines, for our sake, the inheritance issue. People can have a change of heart. Wilson was undecided about keeping the team in the family just 18 months ago. It is time to let him know how much the gesture would be appreciated. If you agree, drop a line to Ralph Wilson at One Bills Drive, Orchard Park, NY 14127.
The Bills do not matter much economically. The big effect is on our psyche. It gives us a rooting interest on fall Sundays. It boosts our quality of life. Being part of a select, 31-city club lifts our civic pride.
Having the Bills adds a lot. Losing them would be a psychological broadside. If the "For Sale" sign went up after Wilson's passing, odds are that outside interests would buy and move the team.
It is Ralph Wilson's team. But doing what it takes now to keep it here would cement his legacy long after he is gone.
So reconsider, Ralph. It would mean that a 47-year-relationship would continue for countless years to come.