Jessie Pegula owns a tennis game that’s taken her inside the Top 90 in singles and Top 60 in doubles. She also owns a skin care company, Ready 24, designed specifically for fellow athletes and women with an active lifestyle.
But it’s what her parents own that will likely always define the Pegula name: the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills.
In acquiring the Bills in 2014, Jessie’s parents, Terry and Kim, effectively saved the franchise from leaving Western New York, to the relief of the team’s countless fans in and outside the Buffalo area. Those diehard supporters, as every football fan knows, are affectionately referred to as “Bills Mafia.” A term of endearment in the sports world, it’s a point of pride for Bills fans, who endured 17 seasons of futility before the team returned to the playoffs in 2017. At the time, it was the longest postseason drought in major American pro sports.
(In that playoff game, the Bills scored only three points in defeat; they made the playoffs again last season, but failed to hold a 16-point, third-quarter lead, and were again eliminated in the first round.)
Perhaps due to the many Western New Yorkers who leave the area, Bills Mafia stretches farther than you might think. There are “Bills Backers” supporter’s groups (and adjoining bars, to gather and watch games) in Los Angeles, Denver, Kansas City—pretty much every major city in the U.S.
And, in some cases, beyond.
“Any Aussie #BillsMafia fans?” asked Jessie on Twitter, after her Bills, coming off a 13-3 regular season and their first playoff victory since 1995, advanced to the AFC Championship Game last Saturday. Thanks to the sudden ascent of third-year quarterback Josh Allen—the only tennis comparable that comes to mind is Novak Djokovic, who always had the talent, but in 2011 made a leap into another stratosphere—the Bills are just one win away from reaching the Super Bowl, the NFL’s championship game.
Pegula competed in the Abu Dhabi Open prior to the 14-day quarantine she's currently undertaking in Melbourne. (Getty Images)
Jessie, of course, is in Melbourne, undergoing the country’s mandated 14-day quarantine due to the coronavirus in order to play the Australian Open. Only allowed outside her hotel room for five hours per day, and under strict conditions, Pegula’s austere schedule would seem ideal for someone who didn’t want to miss a sports game; the Bills will face the Kansas City Chiefs at 6:40 p.m. Eastern Time on Sunday, or 10:40 a.m. Monday in Melbourne.
But she wasn’t taking any chances.
“I made sure to take my day off on that day,” Pegula told the TENNIS.com Podcast. “I told Rebecca [Peterson, Pegula’s practice partner], when we were talking.”
It was only a minor obstacle Pegula faced in her attempt to watch a game—as opposed to the Bills’ prior game, a 20-3 second-round playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens in windy Orchard Park, a leafy residential suburb south of Buffalo. The win marked the first time the Bills reached the AFC Championship Game since 1994, but Jessie almost didn’t see it happen.
Playing a tournament in Abu Dhabi before her flight to Melbourne, a television feed of the game wasn’t readily available, so Pegula resorted to other online avenues.
“We got some shady stream, saw most of the game,” she recounts. “In the fourth quarter, it was cutting out, so we didn’t even see all the craziness that happened at the end, and I was like, freaking out. So stressful.”
Lost our game stream in Abu Dhabi but a Bills W! #BillsMafia— Jessie Pegula (@JLPegula) January 9, 2021
Despite the inconveniences, and her inability to be home as a momentous season builds to a crescendo, Pegula views her team’s success as a welcome distraction from the monotony of her current existence. It’s also helped cultivate some more Mafia members, from the world of professional tennis, including Jennifer Brady and Bianca Andreescu.
Cheering for my team closest to home, let’s go buffalooooooooo @BuffaloBills ????????????????— Bianca (@Bandreescu_) January 9, 2021
“It’s been fun following from afar, to be honest,” Pegula says. “We’ve been in quarantine; we were in a bubble in Abu Dhabi, so it’s just something to look forward to. They’ve had a great season.”
Not all of the Pegulas would be up for leaving the country at a time like this, for a variety of reasons. Terry and Kim aren’t going anywhere, not with the run the Bills are on. But neither is Jessica’s younger sister, Kelly, who was originally supposed to join her in Melbourne.
“She was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to come anymore, because the Bills are playing so well,’” Jessica says with a laugh. “‘What if they make it to the Super Bowl and I miss it?’
“Not that we’re there yet,” Jessica adds quickly, as if to ward off a jinx, “So that’s actually kind of why she bailed. But I was like, it’s a good reason.”
Terry and Kim Pegula, the owners of the Buffalo Bills, before a game in 2015. (Getty Images)
Should the Bills knock off Kansas City (they are slight underdogs, according to the oddsmakers), they’ll play in the Super Bowl for the first time since their four consecutive title-game appearances from 1991-94—all of which were losses. The ignominious streak has trailed Bills fans like a rain cloud over Eyeore, and is a go-to insult for anyone that decides to pick on the small-market team that simply couldn’t get over the hump.
But of all the things that have happened since the pandemic, the Bills’ rise might be one of the unlikeliest—making a possible title run (shhh!) all the more satisfying.
The kickoff of the Super Bowl is just thirty minutes before the Australian Open main draw gets underway, on Sunday, Feb. 7 (Monday, Feb. 8 in Melbourne). What, then, if the Bills are in it?
Should that come to pass, surely thanks to a few passes from Allen to his wide receivers in the end zone, here’s hoping that Jessie Pegula is able to take that Monday off, as well.
Pegula's episode of the TENNIS.com Podcast drops next week.