How Ralph Wilson found fame and fortune in sports

On this day, October 17 in the year 1918, one of the founding owners of the American Football League (AFL) was born in Ohio, United States. His name was Ralph Cookerly Wilson Jr., the founder of Buffalo Bills.

Ralph Wilson Jr.
Ralph Wilson Jr. (Credit:

Ralph Wilson Jr. was the son of an insurance salesman. He grew up in Detroit, Michigan and attended the University of Michigan but transferred to University Liggett School where he graduated in 1936. When he was discharged from the US Navy after World War II, he went to work for his father’s insurance brokerage business.

In 1959, Ralph Wilson Jr. formed the Buffalo Bills, one of the original teams in the American Football League which merged with National Football League in 1969. Previously, he had minority interest in the Detroit Lions, a team with the NFL. Though Buffalo Bills was a team in a “small market”, it was able to sign up great players such as Hall of Famers Billy Shaw and O. J. Simpson. In the early years of the AFL, he gave money to the struggling Oakland Raiders so that it could stay afloat. In 1998, the former Rich Stadium in the suburb of Buffalo City was renamed Ralph Wilson Stadium. His initial investment in Buffalo Bills was $25,000. In 2013, Forbes magazine estimated that the team was worth $870 million.

Outside of sports, Ralph Wilson Jr. had investments in mining, construction, and broadcasting, all under the holding firm Ralph Wilson Industries. He was also into horse breeding and racing.

Ralph Wilson Jr. died in 2014 at the age of 95. He had 2 daughters with his wife Mary. After his death, Buffalo Bills was sold for more than $1 billion. The proceeds were given as endowment for the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation to fund its charitable activities.


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