ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Mafia is becoming legitimate in Buffalo — the Bills Mafia that is.
The Bills last week filed an application to trademark the fan base’s adopted nickname in preparation to launch a series of branded merchandise and apparel available at Buffalo’s team store and sold online.
Bills Mafia, which first became popular in 2011 and for years was considered taboo by the Bills and NFL because of its connotation of organized crime, will be featured on everything from T-shirts to potentially pajamas, and available as early as this week.
“We felt like we needed to embrace this, because it had really turned into a community spirit,” said Ron Raccuia, executive vice president of the Bills’ parent company, Pegula Sports and Entertainment. “Our players and our coaching staff have really been engaged with it, and it just became very natural.”
Just as important, the Bills are collaborating with members of the Bills Mafia fan base, including Del Reid, who coined the phrase and has since launched a T-shirt business.
“I don’t like using the word godfather,” Raccuia joked, “but (Reid) and his partners came up with this idea, they brought it to life. We wouldn’t be here without them. And they’re certainly going to be a big part of this ride going forward.”
That wasn’t always the view of Bills management, going back to the days of Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson, who died in 2014. Rather than acknowledge the nickname, the team would go out of its way to avoid its mention.
Another concern was how Bills Mafia became mischaracterized on social media, which focused on the team’s rowdier, table-breaking fans, while overlooking the charitable work done on behalf of the nickname over the years.
“Bills Mafia has always stood for support of the team, not just the team in general, but the players themselves individually, like it’s a family thing,” said Reid, who came up with Bills Mafia as an inside joke.
The nickname stemmed from former Bills receiver Stevie Johnson questioning God on Twitter for having a sure touchdown pass fall through his hands in overtime of a 19-16 loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 28, 2010. Johnson’s tweet went viral immediately following the game.
Reid and numerous Bills fans, however, took issue with ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter for what they viewed as attempting to bring attention to himself by retweeting Johnson’s post a day later. Reid and many others were eventually blocked by Schefter.
Months later, Reid posted a tweet mentioning all those who had been blocked, referring to them as “Bills Mafia.” The name caught on the following season when Bills linebacker Nick Barnett unveiled a mouth-guard featuring the phrase.
It was a life-changing moment for Reid. He began printing Mafia-themed football T-shirts which he estimates raised $25,000 for charity during the first year. Reid went on to launch his Buffalo-based company, 26 Shirts, which has since expanded into Pittsburgh and Chicago, and raised another $900,000 for charity.
Reid welcomed the Bills’ decision to adopt the phrase, and respect its true meaning.
“It’s about community, and they seem to get it,” Reid said. “It seems to really resonate with them, and I appreciate that. … I’m looking forward to seeing what we’re able to come up with together.”
It was also a natural progression for the Bills to trademark the name given Reid couldn’t because the team holds the rights to the Bills nickname and team logos.
“We can give it the intellectual property legitimacy that it rightly deserves,” Raccuia said.
Raccuia said there will be a charitable component involved, though it can’t be linked to the sale of Bills Mafia merchandise because the team doesn’t control sales.
The team has also brought in Los Angeles-based Theheyyman to assist with marketing and design. The design firm was founded by Nicholas Avery, who is a Bills fan and got his start as an artist in Buffalo.
Jason Sinnarajah was a Bills fan growing up in Toronto and eventually considered himself a member of the Bills Mafia long before being hired as the team’s senior vice president of business in July.
“I think it’s a recognition of what Bills Mafia is, and it’s really a sense of community. And I think Del has really encapsulated that really, really well,” Sinnarajah said. “He’s created that groundswell of a community that is aligned around an immense passion for the Bills.”
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