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Ralph Wilson's 'Don't worry' has people in Buffalo worried

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When Bills owner Ralph Wilson was asked this week about the long-term future of the NFL team in Buffalo, he said not to worry.

That seems to have a lot of people worried.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer has been on the phone with Wilson for reassurance the team's not moving. Congressman Brian Higgins has written to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Mayor Byron Brown's written to Wilson, and the issue has been topic No. 1 on radio call-in shows.

With an 89-year-old owner whose family will not take over the team, fans' worries about hanging on to the Bills are never far from the surface.

But when Wilson announced Wednesday the team would begin playing an annual regular-season game in Toronto -- and lamented the decline of the Buffalo market in the process -- speculation ran rampant that it was a first step toward moving the Bills to Canada.

"I can't speculate what's going to happen in the future. But don't worry. Don't worry right now," Wilson said, only adding to the angst.

"I was upset of course," Schumer said, "and I called Ralph Wilson immediately."

Schumer said he "breathed a sigh of relief" after hearing Wilson speak of his commitment to Buffalo. But Schumer didn't have an answer for what will happen after Wilson dies, instead calling it a "sensitive question" and one that shouldn't be discussed publicly.

Too late, because fans are already wondering what will become of the team post-Wilson, especially when the Toronto partners who are bringing the Bills north for one game a season through 2012 are pursuing an NFL franchise of their own. Those partners are Blue Jays owner Ted Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors.

Erie County Executive Chris Collins said the anxiety is understandable.

"Anytime Ralph Wilson stands up and talks about the Bills, the media and public are going to react because we all would like this to be a done deal," Collins said Friday. "We'd like to know we're going to have local ownership of the team here."

In his letter to Goodell, a western New York native, Higgins asked the league to consider amending its constitution to give fans a shot at buying the team. He proposed either allowing full community ownership, modeled after the Green Bay Packers, whose fans bought the team before the NFL prohibited such arrangements, or "hybrid community ownership." In that scenario, a single owner would own a majority of shares, with fans holding the minority stake.

"Community ownership in the Bills would give the Buffalo fans that built this franchise a real role in steering the future of this team," the congressman wrote.

Bills executives say the Toronto venture is a way to strengthen the franchise by expanding its fan base, no different than when they moved training camp 75 miles east, to near Rochester, in 2000.

A deal has yet to be completed, but it's projected the Bills could receive between $35 million and $50 million for the eight-game Toronto series (five regular season and three preseason games), which would be more than double what they could make hosting the games at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Collins, who took office last month, said the best way to keep the team from making a permanent move would be to strengthen the region, which Wilson bluntly pointed out is "dwindling."

The Bills' lease with the county extends until 2012, lending a sense of urgency.

"We grow or we die," Collins said, "and I don't want to be sitting here three years from now negotiating with the Bills and pointing to three more years of decline."

Brown, in his letter to Wilson, said the city has already made strides.

Also Friday, the Bills released their ticket price information for the season. The new average price of $51 marks about a $6 increase over last season, but is still $16 less than the NFL average last year.

The ticket prices don't include the preseason game and regular-season game to be played in Toronto. Toronto organizers have said tickets will be expensive, with only some costing less than $100. Season-ticket holders of the CFL Toronto Argonauts will have the first option to purchase a limited selection of tickets, while others will be made available through a lottery.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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