Pegula supports the Buffalo Bills - fans need to do the same

New ownership of the Bills merits celebration, but not unequivocal acceptance

When the Bills stunned the Chicago Bears last Sunday, clinching an overtime victory and beating the team on its home turf, a question lingered: What would “home” soon mean for the Bills?

Now, thanks to Terry Pegula, Buffalo’s local billionaire, the city has its answer. The Bills aren’t going anywhere. Buffalo gets to keep its team, and Jon Bon Jovi, figurehead of Toronto’s bidders, can avoid becoming the most hated man in Buffalo.

Being a Bills fan is tough enough already. It’s been a decade since the team’s last winning season (and going 9-7 isn’t much too celebrate), 15 years since it reached the playoffs, and the memories of four consecutive Super Bowl losses have yet to fade from fans’ collective memories.

Anyone who has stood by the Bills after all that deserves a victory. It’s a far cry from a conference championship, but Pegula’s new ownership of the team is, at the very least, a win for the football fans of Buffalo.

But, of course, there’s more to Buffalo than football. And there’s plenty of people who could care less about the location of an NFL team – people who might be more concerned with Pegula’s financial priorities, or the origins of his vast wealth.

Pegula’s earned his $3.3 billion fortune in the energy industry. He created his own drilling company that uses the controversial method of fracking – hydraulic fracturing – to reach stores of gas and oil that were previously inaccessible. The obvious economic benefits are offset by dramatic environmental consequences, which range from water contamination, degradation of air quality and increases in seismic activity.

The practice of fracking is a hot-button issue that generates intense debate nationwide – and now the Bills are inextricably linked to the practice.

Although it’s beneficial to at least have an awareness of the financial background behind the Bills’ new patron and it’s certainly true that Pegula’s priorities will not satisfy Buffalo’s environmentalists.

But how about some context? Bill Bidwill inherited the Cardinals from his father, who has been linked with Al Capone. Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Browns, runs a company that sells diesel fuel at truck stops and is under federal investigation for shortchanging customers. Jerry Jones, of the Cowboys, Pat Bowlen, of the Broncos, Bud Adams, of the Titans – they all made their money in oil.

It’s unfortunate that the Bills aren’t owned by an environmental advocate or an icon of philanthropy. But drilling for oil tends to generate the kind of revenue that can buy a football team – the same can’t be said for attempting to stop the practice. And the first question asked of a prospective franchise-owner isn’t “is he virtuous?” but rather, “is he rich?”

“Rich” doesn’t even begin to describe the extent of Pegula’s financial resources. The depth of his pockets is better illustrated by his mammoth purchases and contributions: $1.4 billion to own the Bills, $189 million for the Buffalo Sabres, $170 million spent on the city’s HarborCenter hockey and hotel complex, as well as $88 million to his alma mater, Penn State, directed toward the launch of the school’s Division I hockey program and a new ice arena.

Pegula’s wealth is easily apparent, as are his priorities: sports. Sure, he’s saved Buffalo from athletic decline, but our schools need to be rescued, too. He can afford to fund a school’s hockey team, so it seems like he could chip in and save an arts program, or buy some school supplies for Buffalo’s many underprivileged students.

But ultimately, it’s his money. It’s not the state’s, it’s not the taxpayers’ – so as long as Pegula is reaching for his own wallet, he gets to decide where to put his cash. The prioritization of athletics over education is a nationwide issue that Pegula doesn’t deserve to symbolize.

Discussions of a new stadium, on the other hand, which would likely require some form of public support – such as higher taxes – brings the conversation of uneven priorities right back to the table. The community isn’t willing to support the arts and the school district struggles to fund vital assistance programs. A new, billion-dollar shrine to the toxic “athletics over all else” attitude should be out of the question.

Principles aside, practicality should reign supreme. More than $100 million has already been spent remodeling Ralph Wilson stadium, which also allows for one of the best tailgating experiences in the country and ensures that downtown Buffalo (the most likely location if a new stadium were to be built) isn’t tasked with a massive overhaul of public transportation and infrastructure. There’s already plenty to enjoy downtown – Buffalo doesn’t need a billion dollar cherry on top.

Bills fans should be grateful that their team is still nearby, competing in a newly renovated stadium that should serve as a multimillion-dollar reminder: The enthusiasm with which this new ownership has been greeted should be affirmed by ticket sales. It’s time for Buffalo’s football devotees to do their part. Pegula put out over a billion dollars, so cough up some cash, buy a ticket and help fill up the Ralph – for once – this year.