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Terry Pegula joins new breed of NFL owners with Bills purchase

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The Pegula family buying the Bills keeps the residents of Buffalo happy, but similarities with longtime owner Ralph Wilson may end there. Terry Pegula belongs to a new breed of sports businessmen, where team ownership goes beyond wins, losses and community spirit.

Rick Stewart

NEW YORK CITY -- Terry Pegula, the new owner of the Buffalo Bills, breezed through the media room Wednesday morning here at the NFL owners meeting. His introduction was brief -- a quick, informal statement, ostensibly because he wasn't technically the team's owner yet. The Bills are still waiting for the $1.4 billion check to clear, so to speak.

"I got a helluva deal," Pegula said regarding his newest acquisition.

The NFL's finance committee had already approved his bid for the team in September. Approval from the rest of the owners topped the agenda at Wednesday's meeting so that he and his wife could vote and participate with the rest of the owners in the meeting's remaining work. He was unanimously approved, as expected.

It feels like a geological epoch has passed since an emotional Russ Brandon, the Bills CEO, shared news of Ralph Wilson's death at the league meetings on March 25. It happened that morning. He was 95, and the second-longest tenured NFL owner. Wilson was the last member of the "Foolish Club," an upstart band of eight businessmen who created the American Football League in 1960, who still owned a team.

The six months between Wilson's death and Pegula's acceptance into the tiny group of 32 NFL team owners was an excruciating time for the city of Buffalo and Bills fans, a weird spectacle for everyone else. Reality TV star and real estate huckster Donald Trump threw himself into the mix; it felt like another publicity stunt similar to his presidential ambitions.

No potential owner elicited more bad feelings than Jon Bon Jovi. It was as if he was the titular head of an ownership group that included Scott Norwood and Dan Marino, but his ties to a Toronto group that had fans burning his record albums in the parking lots.

Pegula's purchase is a win for those fans. He's promised to keep the Bills in Buffalo, where he's been active since buying the Sabres, the city's NHL franchise, in 2010.

Terry Pegula was 9 years old when the Bills played their first season.

"If you asked me 10 years ago if I was going to own the Sabres and the Bills, I would have called you a liar," he said.

Both Wilson and Pegula hail from professional football's industrial heartland around the Great Lakes, long before it became the Rust Belt. Wilson was from Detroit. Pegula is from coal country in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Pegula has one thing in common with some of the NFL's old guard owners like the Hunts or Jerry Jones, who owe much of their wealth to the mineral business. He made his fortune drilling for oil and gas on some 650,000 acres of mineral rights underneath Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia. But the latest member of the club more closely resembles today's NFL, with its business-first intent on growing the league's bottom line.

Much of Pegula's fortune stems from a controversial extraction process, fracking. Water loaded with chemicals and sand is used to blast rocks underground, breaking them up and making it easier to get natural gas and oil out of the ground. Opponents of the process cite pollution, contamination of ground water and other dangers associated with it. Evidence also suggests that fracking causes earthquakes.

The state of New York put a moratorium on fracking in 2008, and that's become a central issue in state politics ahead of the 2014 election next month.

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Pegula sold most of the mineral rights held by his company, Eastern Resources. In 2010, Royal Dutch Shell paid $4.7 billion for much of the company's holdings in Pennsylvania, New York and the Rocky Mountain West. He sold drilling rights in Ohio and West Virginia to American Energy in August for $1.75 billion.

He still owns oil and gas assets in five states, including Pennsylvania and New York. The question now is whether Pegula will use his sports business interests in Western New York to influence the state's looming decision over fracking.

"Now, God bless Terry Pegula," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a September campaign stop in Buffalo. "Start making the statue of Terry Pegula right now. And make it big."

Kim Pegula made a $25,000 donation to Cuomo's campaign earlier this fall. Cuomo is one recipient of the Pegula's campaign donations. The couple donated more than $350,000 to Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, a proponent of fracking, along with donations to numerous other elected officials in that state.

"Now, God bless Terry Pegula. Start making the statue of Terry Pegula right now. And make it big." -Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Pegula has also made considerable philanthropic expenditures and community investments, including $102 million for a new hockey arena at Penn State, his alma mater. He's building a hotel complex and youth hockey center in Buffalo, too. He's expected to play a large role in building a stadium for the Bills as well. Cuomo's office cited those expenditures in pledging state aid for the region.

For the most part, the Bills' new owner has shied away from publicly lobbying New York to allow fracking. However, in 2011, after purchasing the Sabres, he brought state legislators to the First Niagara Center to pitch the economic benefits of the controversial oil and gas drilling procedure.

Businesses lobbying politicians and others in stadium suites is hardly new, for team owners or the customers who spend big to rent luxury boxes. But Pegula's purchase of the Bills and increasing prominence in the region comes at a time when the NFL is focused first and foremost on its bottom line and its role as a major corporate player as opposed to just a sport with deep roots in this part of the country. Pegula may still have plenty in common with the Bills' previous owner, but he belongs with the new breed of businessmen running the league.