The new owner of the Buffalo Bills isn’t Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean fans increasingly projecting politics onto sports necessarily breathe a sigh of relief.
Terrence Pegula, a Boca Raton businessman who made his billions in the oil industry, reached a deal to buy the Buffalo Bills this week for about $1 billion. NFL owners still need to approve the agreement. Pegula, whose daughter the Women’s Tennis Association ranks as the 138th best player in the world, has owned the Buffalo Sabres since 2011, which reassures locals that the sports enthusiast intends to keep a football team in Buffalo that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2004 and plays in a stadium entering its fifth decade.
But in a post-Donald Sterling world, in which owners come under scrutiny for making contributions to politically-incorrect causes or making observations about the racism of white fans, keeping the Bills in Buffalo may not be enough to win the allegiance of alchemists who mix sport and politics. Before he sold East Resources to Royal Dutch Shell for $4.7 billion four years ago, Pegula made a name, and a lot of money, retrieving petroleum through the controversial procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, i.e., “fracking.”
“King of the Pennsylvania frackers, Pegula was in on the ground floor of the innovative natural gas drilling process known as ‘fracking,’ which spurred a modern-day gold rush, or gas rush, in the Marcellus Shale fields of the Keystone state,” writes James Hufnagel at the Niagara Falls Reporter, who accuses Pegula of becoming rich by “poisoning the multitudes.” He continues, “If Terrence ‘Terry’ Pegula prevails in the bidding process and succeeds in purchasing the Buffalo Bills, he will pay with money derived from his ruinous operations in Pennsylvania, as well as with proceeds from the sale of his company to Dutch Shell, which were realized through the suppression of the Nigerian people, the plunder of its resources and destruction of its environment, and the brutal and unjust execution of Saro-Wiwa.”
It’s not just how he’s made his money, but the way in which he has given it away, that upsets some. After he sold East Resources, Pegula donated $102 million to alma mater Penn State for a hockey arena. “I would tell students that this contribution could be just the tip of the iceberg,” an anti-fracking site quotes him as saying after the donation, “the first of many such gifts, if the development of the Marcellus Shale is allowed to proceed.”
The fracking billionaire has donated $5,000 to John Boehner and another $2,300 to a political action committee supporting Congressional Republicans this election cycle. His wife Kim has donated generously to the House Speaker as well as New York Republican Chris Collins. The pair combined to give more than $300,000 to Republican Tom Corbett’s successful 2010 Pennsylvania gubernatorial bid.
His sale of 75,000 acres for $1.7 billion earlier this year, and continued exploration of the rocky depths of the earth for oil through fracking, gives him a net worth of $3.3 billion, which would have been enough to buy the Cowboys let alone the Bills.
Forbes magazine’s 166th–richest American didn’t always have it so good. Raised in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, Pegula drove a water truck at fourteen and worked to fight a stubborn, multi-decade mine fire in his youth. His father supported the family through work as a coal miner, truck driver, and in other blue-collar jobs. “I grew up poor,” the billionaire told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “My father never owned our own house. We rented a house.”
Pegula’s fortunes changed at Penn State, where he majored in engineering. Like Ralph Wilson, the only owner in Buffalo Bills history up until his death–who scrambled $25,000 together in 1959 to launch the team–Pegula borrowed $7,500 from family members in 1983 to parlay into billions.
Like John D. Rockefeller, America’s first billionaire, one of America’s most recent billionaires made his money through Pennsylvania oil. And like America’s first billionaire, his inspiring story moved as many to decry as to dream. With a playoff drought reaching back to the second-to-last day of 1995, the Bills, even fans opposed to fracking agree, could use leadership experienced in upward mobility.