Donald Trump Seeks to Purchase the NFL’s Buffalo Bills Franchise
Donald Trump announced this week his desire to purchase the Buffalo Bills franchise. The Bills owner for the past 55 years, Ralph C. Wilson Jr., died on March 25, 2014. On April 4, the franchise announced that a process for its sale would be established at an appropriate later time.
When asked by media about rumors of his interest, Donald Trump said, “I would love to do it, and if I can do it I’m keeping it in Buffalo.”
Keeping the team in the Buffalo area is likely to be important to National Football League owners, who would have to approve a purchase by Donald Trump. While the Bills are not the most storied franchise in the NFL, they are one of the storied franchises and they have maintained a loyal fanbase for over half of a century. Also, the Bills play one game each season in Toronto, so the franchise is an important link to the Canadian football market.
Several issues might keep Donald Trump from serious consideration by the NFL ownerships. For final approval of a sale, 24 of the 32 owners would have to vote to approve Donald Trump.
Casino Issues Likely to Be an Obstacle
Donald Trump’s ties to casino gambling are likely to be a major stumbling block. The NFL is closely tied to sports gambling. The league requires team to provide a detailed injury report every Wednesday of the NFL season, which is meant to help oddsmakers and sports betters alike make their decisions with accurate information. The New England Patriots once were fined by the NFL for giving an incomplete injury report, which is why the Patriots are known for listing nearly half their squad with “Questionable” or “Probable” injury tags each week.
Since Donald Trump owns the Trump Taj Mahal and Trump Plaza in Atlantic City–and recently owned a third gaming operation on the Boardwalk–these gaming interests could place an NFL owner too close to the industry. Of course, Atlantic City casinos are not allowed to operate sportsbooks, a point which might be to a New Jersey gaming operators advantage, for once.
Hard Feelings over USFL
Another potential stumbling block could be hard feelings stemming from the USFL lawsuit of the 1980’s. In 1983, a group of millionaires started a spring football league named the United States Football League. Though it did not go up against the NFL directly with a fall season, the USFL did sign 3 straight Heisman Trophy Winners (Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Mike Rosier) in the spirit of competition against the NFL.
These operations eventually built a stable of players who would go on to become Pro Football Hall of Fame members: Steve Young, Reggie White, Gary Zimmerman, and Jim Kelly. Despite their entertaining style of play and network TV contracts, stadium attendence after the first year was never great.
Donald Trump’s USFL Stint
Donald Trump originally was set to be a founding owner of the USFL, but he sold his controlling interest in the New Jersey Generals francise to Texas oilman, J. Walter Duncan. At the time, Donald Trump was more interested in focusing on his casino building projects in Atlantic City, which later went on to become Trump Plaza.
In the second season of the USFL, Donald Trump bought the New Jersey Generals franchise from J. Walter Duncan. Throughout his first season in the league, Trump deferred to the highly respected owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, John F. Bassett, who wanted to continue building slowly and avoid direct competition with the NFL. But when John F. Bassett died of brain cancer in 1984, Donald Trump became the de facto leader of the USFL ownership.
Trump wanted to compete directly with the NFL, so he pushed to have the league start playing in the fall, when the NFL season occurred. He also launched an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, claiming the league had established a monopoly in regard to television broadcasting rights and stadium access. Over the course of the USFL’s third year in operation (1985), the lawsuit made front page headlines. Eventually, the jury in the case found that the NFL had used monopoly power to harm the USFL, but most of the new league’s problems stemmed from mismanagement. The jury found on behalf of the USFL, but awarded the league only $1 in damages (tripled to $3 under US antitrust laws). The NFL did have to pay the rival league’s court costs, in excess of $5 million, but the USFL was more than $160 million in debt at the time, so the owners voted to shut down the league.
Fallout of the Antitrust Lawsuit
Many followers of the USFL, including players and fellow owners, have stated Donald Trump’s high profile lifestyle alienated the jury and led to the small damages. From the perspective of the NFL’s leaders, Donald Trump has tried to sue their league with an intent to damage their business. Many on both sides of the divide believed Donald Trump wanted to force a merger between the leagues, thus getting an NFL franchise for a fraction of the cost it would normally have cost.
With that in mind, the USFL case might be as much, if not more, of a problem for Donald Trump in trying to buy the Buffalo Bills. While his presence would certainly bring a new spotlight to a franchise which has spent most of the 21st century in relative obscurity (after being a top team in the 1990’s), the NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell are likely to find Trump’s personality and his gambling interests too much bad ambiance for a league on top–but already dealing with the bad publicity stemming from concussion studies.