Football team names are so ingrained in public consciousness, it can sometimes be hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. How do owners even go about picking a team name? Of course, there’s a unique story behind every team’s name, but today we’ll be focusing specifically on the Buffalo Bills. Why are they called this Buffalo Bills in the first place?
Professional Football in Buffalo
To better understand the history of the Buffalo Bills team name, we first have to note that the Bills were not the first professional football team to play in Buffalo. Various professional teams had played in Buffalo and upstate New York since the beginning of the 20th century. The Buffalo Niagaras and Buffalo All-Americans are just a couple examples.
After World War II, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) was formed. With past pro teams since folded, Buffalo was again selected for a new team. This team played as the Buffalo Bisons for their first season in 1946. There isn’t a long story behind the Bison nickname other than it just being popular in the region–it’s served as a name for various Buffalo sports teams over the years. It’s a play on the fact that what we call “buffaloes” in North America are actually bison.
The following year, team owner James Breuil sought to rebrand his team, since there were baseball and hockey teams in the area that shared the Bison nickname. So he held a fan contest to rename Buffalo’s team.
Ultimately, the winning entry would be “Bills”, after the famous frontiersman of the old west, Buffalo Bill Cody. According to the winning contestant, this “frontier” theme also tied in to the Frontier Oil Company, which was owned by Breuil.
Why Are They Called The Buffalo Bills?
The era of the AAFC’s Buffalo Bills would be short. The team folded just three years after its inception. But the Bills name would not go away.
When businessman Lamar Hunt announced the formation of the American Football League (AFL) in the summer of 1959, Buffalo was among the cities targeted for a new franchise. Hunt was able to convince a sports executive named Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. to take up ownership of a Buffalo franchise. Once Buster Ramsey was secured as Buffalo’s head coach, the team was ready to begin play in the AFL’s inaugural season. All that was needed was a name.
Once again, a public contest would be held. The team would ultimately adopt the same name as their AAFC predecessors–Buffalo Bills. They began play as a charter member of the AFL in 1960.
The Bills would find success in the 1960s, winning consecutive league titles in 1964 and 1965, led by quarterback Jack Kemp (who would later become a prominent politician) and coach Lou Saban. They would officially join the NFL as part of the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
The Bills Today
The Bills would generally struggle after the merger, putting up mediocre seasons throughout the 1970s, despite featuring All-Pro running back O. J. Simpson. After almost collapsing entirely in the mid-1980s, the team was aided by a series of great draft picks, including Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Bruce Smith. The team would become a contender throughout the late-1980s and mid-1990s, even reaching the Super Bowl a record 4 consecutive times. Unfortunately, the team lost all four subsequent Super Bowls, which is also a record.
The Bills have had little success since entering the new millennium, failing to rebuild numerous times. These organizational failures also coincided with the rise of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, a divisional rival. From 2000 to 2016, the Bills did not make the playoffs. This 17-season drought had been the longest active playoff drought in major professional sports at the time. It was finally broken with a Bills wild-card birth in 2017.
Today, the Buffalo Bills continue to play in the AFC East, along with the New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, and New York Jets.
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