The story goes something like this: in 1959, when Lamar Hunt was putting together ownership groups for what would eventually become the AFL, he contacted Ralph Wilson, who had a second home in Miami and was interested in putting a franchise there. Local politicians, however, wouldn't allow the team to use the Orange Bowl, so Mr. Wilson had to choose between a group of five other cities, a list that included Buffalo. After consulting with friends, he sent Hunt the now-famous telegraph, "Count me in with Buffalo."
What would have happened, though, if Mr. Wilson had been able to use the Orange Bowl to host a Miami AFL franchise (as Joe Robbie was able to do a few years later), or if he had decided that Louisville would have been the best city to host an upstart franchise? Where would the NFL be now, and would it include Buffalo in its ranks?
Let's start by looking at the rest of the choices Mr. Wilson had. Aside from the aforementioned Louisville, each option eventually wound up with an NFL franchise: St. Louis in 1960 (when the Cardinals relocated from Chicago), Atlanta in 1965, and Cincinnati in 1968.
Any AFL team in St. Louis would have struggled mightily, since at that time baseball was still much more popular than football and the Cardinals were kings; even the NFL team struggled when it first showed up. It would have been very interesting to see, however, if the NFL would have even authorized relocation from Chicago to St. Louis if an expansion AFL franchise had been established. Doing so would have started a pretty big turf war that might have created enough bad blood to prevent the merger from ever happening at the end of the decade. At the very least, it's likely that one of the teams would have bolted from the market after a few years.
The other two franchises were both expansion teams, Atlanta in the NFL and Cincinnati in the AFL. Would either of those teams have ended up in Buffalo if the market was already occupied? With this question, it's also probably worthwhile to look at the outcomes of expansion in both leagues over the next two decades, which would have been the optimal time for Buffalo to land a professional football franchise. Between 1960 and 1980, the NFL added six franchises outside of the merger, while the AFL added the previously-mentioned teams in Miami and Cincinnati. Here's a look at the market size of each locale (probably the key metric in deciding expansion cities) over that time frame (populations from US Census Bureau, using Minneapolis for the Vikings):
|City (League)||First Season||1960 Population (Rank)||1970 Population (Rank)||1980 Population (Rank)|
|Buffalo (AFL)||1960||532,759 (20)||462,768 (28)||357,870 (39)|
|Dallas (NFL)||1960||679,684 (14)||844,401 (8)||904,078 (7)|
|Minnesota (NFL)||1961||482,872 (25)||434,400 (32)||370,951 (34)|
|Atlanta (NFL)||1966||487,455 (24)||496,973 (27)||425,022 (29)|
|Miami (AFL)||1966||291,688 (44)||334,859 (42)||346,865 (41)|
|New Orleans (NFL)||1967||627,525 (15)||593,471 (19)||557,515 (21)|
|Cincinnati (AFL)||1968||502,550 (21)||452,524 (29)||385,457 (32)|
|Seattle (NFL)||1976||557,087 (19)||530,831 (22)||493,846 (23)|
|Tampa Bay (NFL)||1976||274,970 (48)||277,767 (50)||271,523 (53)|
Looking at the population decline over the years, it's hard to see an owner without strong ties to the community stepping up to put a team in Buffalo during the latter half of the century. It's important to note that outside of the Buccaneers, each of those teams was founded by someone with close ties to the city. While it's possible that Buffalo could have attracted the Philadelphia-based ownership that founded the Bucs, it's likely none of the other teams would have gone anywhere else.
Would a Buffalo-based group from that era have been able to wrangle an NFL franchise? The group that immediately comes to mind is the Knox Brothers, founders of the Sabres. However, they were heavily invested in the NHL, having tried several times to get a hockey team in Buffalo before paying the $6 million expansion fee to start the Sabres up in 1970. The NFL's expansion fee for the Bucs and Seahawks was $16 million, so a double-dip for the Knoxes would have been unlikely. It's also hard to see a group that would have jumped into the Buffalo market after the founding of the AFL; while Mr. Wilson only had to pay $25,000 to get the Bills going, the groups that founded the Cowboys and Vikings both paid $1 million, and the next AFL expansion cost the Miami group $7.5 million. Again, anything is possible, but conventional thinking would lead money-conscious businessmen to stay away from Western New York, especially considering the fact that the NFL at the time wasn't nearly as popular as it is today.
Now, assuming that a franchise in Buffalo never came to be, how different would the NFL look today? The largest city in 1980 that has never had an NFL team was San Antonio, although Phoenix did not yet have the Cardinals at that point. San Antonio has been linked to relocation several times over the years, and even hosted a few games for the post-Katrina Saints in 2005 (you may remember the Bills' visit there, notable for Terrence McGee's mind-blowing return that ended with him tripping at the five-yard line). It's hard to say whether or not San Antonio would definitely have a franchise in this scenario, since people who buy expansion teams tend to gravitate towards their homes, but considering both San Antonio's size and the large number of Texans who have both money and passion for football, it's the most likely spot a team would have ended up.
Over the years, those in charge of divisional alignment have shown a blatant disregard for geographical accuracy when doing their work. Would San Antonio be in the AFC East? Possibly, especially when you realize that Dallas is in the NFC East for whatever reason. In today's NFL, a San Antonio team would have ideally been placed in the AFC South, with Jacksonville moving to the AFC East and giving New England an even easier path to 12 wins and a first-round bye every year.
There are a lot of factors that are very hard to account for, for various reasons. The economic impact that not having the Bills would have had on the city over the years, for example, is something well outside of the scope of what I can understand, yet it undoubtedly would have had a major impact on everybody who ever lived in the Buffalo area. It's entirely possible that Buffalo could have landed a CFL franchise during their ill-fated U.S. expansion in the mid-'90s, but that wouldn't have had nearly the impact that the NFL has had, and they likely would have left when they shuttered the U.S. franchises anyway. On the field, would the team have been more competitive? Jim Kelly most likely would have signed right out of the gate in 1983 instead of detouring to the USFL, but then the team probably wouldn't have been bad enough to land Bruce Smith two years later.
There isn't a lot that can be definitively said about what would have happened if Mr. Wilson hadn't counted himself in with Buffalo. One thing is for sure, however: if you're reading this article, some part of your life would have been much different.