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Wilson must be kept in perspective

He made a large mark in this community, did some good things and lived long and well. His passing Tuesday marks the end of an era, in the league in which he made his fortune and in a region that partly wrapped its identity around his football team.

But a little perspective. I understand the inclination to paint a rose-tinged picture after anyone’s passing. But Ralph Wilson was a public figure. There is a point where heartfelt reminiscences cross the line into revisionist history.

From charitable works to a supposed “passion” for keeping the Bills in Buffalo, his actions came in a larger context: ownership of a wildly profitable, monopoly business in a league that rode a tidal wave of popularity to almost unimaginable riches. Wilson in recent years made upward of $35 million annually in estimated pretax profit from a team this community supported at the ticket window and with tax dollars. The franchise he bought in 1959 for $25,000 is now worth about $870 million. I’d say he did all right for himself in Buffalo.

The power and leverage that eventually came with NFL ownership enabled Wilson to extract hundreds of millions of dollars in handouts from county and state taxpayers – at the unspoken but understood threat of relocating the team. Granted, in so doing he was no worse than any other NFL owner, and arguably better than most. He never – unlike some owners – insisted on a new, taxpayer-financed stadium as the price of commitment. His demands for stadium face-lifts/revenues/luxury seating were relatively digestible, and he kept ticket prices reasonable, all in acknowledgment of the economic limitations of this community. But that makes him more the equivalent of a semi-benevolent feudal king than a secular saint.

Let’s not forget, Wilson’s commitment to Buffalo came with conditions and costs. By terms of the 1997 lease deal, state taxpayers covered $63 million in stadium improvements, picked up rent payments and wrote the owner an annual $3 million “working capital” check; county taxpayers took on $91 million in stadium expenses and capital improvements. Beyond that, the community – for the lease terms to kick in – had to sell $11 million worth of luxury suites and club seats, from which the owner (unlike with general ticket sales) pockets all of the annually recurring revenue.

The luxury-seat imperative prompted business leaders to form a committee that sold the seats, regionalized the franchise and, ultimately, cleared the $11 million hurdle. But it was close. With the number still not reached a few days before deadline, Wilson told the New York Daily News that if the goal wasn’t met, “We can walk. … I’m not saying one way or another what is going to happen if we don’t hit it.”

Asked where the team might play the following season, Wilson replied, “It remains to be seen.”

The seats were sold and the team stayed, but make no mistake – there was a price to be paid.

It was the same with the 10-year deal struck barely a year ago. State and county taxpayers will shell out $94.5 million for a stadium face-lift and another $132 million over 10 years for operational costs. The Bills ponied up $35 million and will pay $9 million total rent, but – in an era of tightened civic belts – teams no longer routinely hand the full bill to communities.

We certainly thank Wilson for donating more than $2 million to Roswell Park Cancer Institute and his support of other charities. He was under no obligation to give anything. But in a real sense, it amounted to a sliver of the money forked over by taxpayers to pad his profits over the years. All for a business that, according to sports economists, provides little economic boost to a community. A football team is not an auto plant or a software company. Its main value is in the communal identity, entertainment and conversation it brings.

That’s where Wilson – as a team owner – largely fell short. As beloved as the Bills are, they for most of their existence have been lovable losers – and that buck stops with the owner. A salary cap and equal sharing of the league’s vast TV/broadcast revenue is designed to give smaller-market teams equal competitive footing with the New Yorks and Chicagos. There is no excuse, other than bad management, for the prolonged mediocrity of the last 15 years.

As team owner, Wilson hired the president and general manager, who had priority picks in the annual college draft, determined which free agents to sign and hired the coaches who mold the team. His failure to assemble enlightened management during most of his ownership tenure – and to delay, until last year, handing over the controlling reins – fated Bills fans to the frustration of a mediocre product for most of the last half-century.

Even so, having the Bills adds something to this community. They are a smaller city’s connection to the big time, a prime source of entertainment, a large part of our communal identity and – during the Super Bowl years – a reason for euphoria (at least until championship game day). Having the Bills here obviously worked for Wilson, but it worked in many ways for us, as well. The Detroit guy may not have kept the team here purely out of loyalty, but he at least gave this community the opportunity to retain it.

Personally, he was liked by those who worked for him, played for him and knew him. He lived a long and interesting life. We mourn his passing and feel the loss of a man whose team is part of our communal identity. But when it comes to the transformation of “Mr. Wilson” into “St. Ralph,” it’s not a leap of faith I’m ready to make.