- Mike Rodak, ESPN Staff Writer
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Following the death of owner Ralph Wilson, the future of the Buffalo Bills in Western New York is in doubt.
The Buffalo News reported Tuesday that the team will now be controlled by a trust, whose executor is team CFO Jeffrey Littmann, and not by Wilson's wife or daughters. The newspaper also said that the trust is "likely to control and manage the team for at least a couple of years before any sale of the team is arranged," citing team and NFL sources.
Simply put, this is a situation where anything can happen, but whatever happens won't be immediate.
The most significant stumbling block to a new owner moving the franchise is the Bills' lease with Erie County, which owns Ralph Wilson Stadium. There is a $400 million buyout from the lease until 2020, at which point the Bills can break the agreement for $28 million.
"We all know they have a lease. We know the terms of that lease, and we all know we have to find a long-term solution to keep the Bills there, and that's what we'll continue to work to do," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday.
For a wealthy group of investors, $400 million isn't an insurmountable amount, even when added to the purchase cost of the team, the cost of a new stadium and a potential NFL relocation fee. However, it makes it unlikely that the Bills will leave Buffalo before 2020.
The direction of the team will ultimately be decided by the next ownership group. Terry Pegula, the current owner of the Buffalo Sabres, and Thomas Golisano, the former owner of the Sabres, are among potential local buyers for the team.
Both men would be expected to keep the team in Buffalo. However, the long-term viability of the team is tied to its ability to build a new stadium in the area. The Bills are in the midst of a $130 million renovation to Ralph Wilson Stadium but it's considered more of a short-term solution than a complete revamp, as seen at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium or Chicago's Soldier Field.
Replacing the 40-year old stadium will almost certainly require public funding, and as part of the lease, a 21-member committee was formed earlier this year between the Bills, Erie County and New York State.
An outside buyer could have less incentive to work with the committee to build a new stadium. Last November, CBS Sports reported that the rock star Jon Bon Jovi was interested in becoming the principal owner of the Bills, and that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment -- a Toronto-based firm -- could join as an investor. In that case, the Bills moving to Toronto would become a greater possibility.
Other buyers may have their eyes set on Los Angeles, a market where the NFL would like to have at least one team. The region hasn't been able to strike an agreement to build a stadium, but if a group is able to buy the Bills and then turn to Los Angeles with a franchise to move there, that possibility also becomes more likely.
One of the few certainties right now is that the next step in the process is the Bills putting the team up for sale. It isn't clear when that will happen, but the trust will not be the long-term owner of the team.