“Leave the trademark, take the football” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “leave the cannoli, take the gun.” But it will have to do in describing one of the oddest business arrangements in the NFL, which practically invented the concept of sports marketing. Terry and Kim Pegula, the owners of the Buffalo Bills, have agreed to partner with the Bills Mafia, the team’s rambunctious boosters.
The Buffalo Bills made their hardcore fans an offer they couldn’t refuse
There was brief confusion and outrage this week after Josh Gerben, who runs a trademark law firm, discovered that the Buffalo Bills have applied for a trademark for “Bills Mafia,” with the intent to brand a line of clothing and other items.
Bills Mafia is the name that hardcore supporters of the NFL team have given themselves. Del Reid, co-founder of the movement in 2010, owns 26 Shirts, which has sold a variety of items with the word “Mafia” and the image of a more generic buffalo to avoid trademark infringements.
When fans saw reports of what Gerben had uncovered, minds began racing. With no statement coming from the football team and Reid not responding for a while on social media, members of the Bills Mafia thought the Bills were staging a rubout and taking over the racket. All that was missing was Terry or Kim Pegula saying, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”
That apparently is not the way it is going to play out, however.
“They want to do it right,” Reid said when reached by The Athletic. “The Bills are serious about it. This isn’t a cash grab.”
While the team had always done its best to stay at arm’s length from the Bills Mafia over the years, the Pegulas, who bought the Bills from Ralph Wilson’s estate in 2014, gradually warmed to the idea of formalizing the relationship.
The Athletic reported that a decision by the NFL to ease its rules on licensed merchandise made it feasible for the Bills to approach Bills Mafia about collaborating.
Members of the Bills Mafia have a rowdy reputation
Even before the pandemic closed Bills Stadium to fans for games this season, tailgaters had started dialed back some of the rowdy behavior that the team, the community, and even the Bills Mafia had found to be embarrassing. Videos of fans leaping off vehicles and crashing through tables in the parking lot aren’t as common as they once were.
That has made it easier for the Buffalo Bills and the NFL to embrace the Bills Mafia, even if the name is still a bit distasteful. The other aspect that has helped is the indisputable generosity of the fans.
On Dec. 31, 2017, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd in the final minute to beat the Baltimore Ravens and hand the Bills their first playoff berth in 17 years. Delirious fans started donating money in $17 increments to a charity run by Dalton and his wife. The numbers on the tote board didn’t stop turning until the sum reached $450,000.
When a Baltimore talk-show host called Buffalo a city of losers earlier this year, Bills fans donated more than $7,000 to the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of his mother, who has the disease, The Athletic reported.
Adam Schefter unwittingly started the Bills Mafia
Football fans in Buffalo would still be every bit as passionate, but they wouldn’t have the Bills Mafia moniker if not for an incident involving ESPN football insider Adam Schefter in 2010.
Bills receiver Stevie Johnson dropped a sure overtime touchdown in a game that the Bills lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers and afterward tweeted something that surely looked like he was blaming God. Understandably, that drew worldwide attention, and the media was all over the story.
However, Schefter didn’t pick up on the story until long after it had gone viral. When he tweeted about it, Bills fans began ridiculing Schefter, who responded by blocking many of his antagonists.
Del Reid was one of them, and he tweeted that Schefter should know that there was a Bills Mafia that stands up for its family.
“It was a joke I made on Twitter, and it took off,” Reid told The Athletic. “It wasn’t made in a lab. It wasn’t something I created for everybody to rally behind when the team was bad. “It’s grown into what it is now and used ubiquitously for all Bills fans. Who could have ever guessed?”