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Ralph Wilson Stadium (map it)
1 Bills Drive
Orchard Park, NY 14127
Year Opened: 1973
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Known affectionately as "The Ralph", the home of the NFL Buffalo Bills was constructed by the taxpayers of Erie County and opened in 1973. This is the second venue for the Bills, who played in their first 12 years of existence at the old War Memorial Stadium in the city.
Ralph Wilson Stadium is located in the suburb of Orchard Park, approximately 15 miles south of the city, and sits amidst residential subdivisions, and a local community college campus. There is ample road access to the stadium via I-90 and US Route 219. Gameday bus service is also available from downtown.
The stadium has over 15,000 parking spaces on the property itself. There are also a large amount of privately operated lots in all directions around the stadium, with fees running as low as $5 to park, depending on how far one wants to walk.
The stadium has undergone numerous additions and upgrades over the years to offer amenities comparable to today's NFL standards. In the late 90s, the capacity was actually shrunk from 80,000 seats to just over 73,000, with the space being devoted to new dugout suites, club seating and premium spaces. A new HD diamond vision scoreboard was added for the 2008 season.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
"Ballpark dreck" is the buzzword for the food offerings at the Ralph, with the basic fare - hot dogs, nachos, beer, pop, peanuts and popcorn on the menu. In recent years, the team has tried to upgrade the menu, with the addition of such items as Italian sausage with peppers/onions, Red Osier beef on weck, which is a uniquely Buffalo treat, and pizza. Beer sales are strictly enforced, with the cut off occurring at the beginning of the third quarter.
The 200 club sections offer a more elaborate selection, with various chicken and deli sandwiches, full bar service open for the entire game and imported beer selection. Access to the 200 club requires a ticket in those areas, and the entrance is heavily guarded.
This is the one area where Buffalo ranks high. Being an "old school" stadium, it is the tailgating experience which makes a day here so special. Fans begin their campout here days in advance, and great pains are taken to decorate vehicles, busses and campers. In past seasons one could actually find a fully equipped and functional hot tub on a flatbed, with steam rising on a cold December day.
Inside the stadium, it is also bedlam, with fans decked out on the team's red and blue colors, and the team's longtime anthem, the "Shout" song, blaring as the players take to the field, and following each Buffalo score. Fans here are amongst the least corporate, most down to earth and most passionate in all of the NFL.
With its distant location from the city core, there really is not much to see and do around the environs of The Ralph in upscale suburban Orchard Park. There are a couple of taverns and convenience stores within walking distance, and those establishments do what they can to cater to the game day fan, but otherwise it is the vibrant and colorful tailgate scene which rules the day. Outside vendors sell their wares in certain locations, although new and tougher ordinances by the local municipality strictly regulate who can sell what and where.
Fans coming to the game and not planning to bring their own tailgate party and fixins are best advised to search elsewhere for postgame grub and libations, as there is little to see and do within walking distance of the stadium itself.
This could be a mixed bag, as Buffalo Bills football brings out the best, and the worst, amongst the locals who follow the team. Bills football is ingrained into the community's psyche and consciousness. People here live and die with the fortunes of the team, although a decade of losing and no playoff appearances has numbed the fan base somewhat. People here are rabidly passionate about the Bills, and at the same time there is a great deal of consternation as to the future of the franchise in the post Ralph Wilson era.
While we give high marks for fan support, and yes they have sold this building out for decades, despite a declining economy and population, at the same time we give deductions for what is largely a very unruly and misbehaved crowd on game day. Alcohol and a culture of violence is an unfortunate part of the game day experience, despite team attempts to promote a more family friendly atmosphere. A vibrant tailgate scene's negative consequence is binge drinking and drunkenness. It is not a good place to be if you are wearing a visiting jersey, and watching the melees in the stands, the green jacketed security guys converging from one spot to the next, is an unfortunate spectacle.
Getting in and out of The Ralph is a snap. Most parking lots are open for general parking (cost $25), and there are also handicapped lots available. Traffic management is fairly efficient, and once out of the lots, it is a quick shot to numerous expressways heading north/south and into downtown via the lake route. Satellite parking lots are abundant. After years of tweaking, the system here works reasonably well.
The Buffalo Bills boast the cheapest prices in the NFL. Yes you read that right. "Rockpile" seats in the end zone or in the family (no alcohol) sections can run as cheap as $30, and non-club seating anywhere in the building is well under $100, almost unheard of in today's NFL pricing matrix. Season ticket holders enjoy liberal discounts off of the retail price, and other perks such as a break on merchandise and parking at the stadium. There are no personal seat license requirements, and even with a season ticket base of over 50,000, season tickets can be purchased during the offseason and there is no waiting list. With the ridiculous costs of attending a sporting event in some markets, a Buffalo Bills ticket is an entertainment bargain.
The team pays a great deal of attention to its history and legacy, with a Wall of Fame displaying the names of the franchise greats right in the stadium seating bowl. Some of the notables include disgraced former star O.J. Simpson, and Bob Kalsu, the only professional football player to have perished in the Vietnam war.
The team's two AFL titles (1964-1965) and four AFC championships (1990-1991-1992-1993) are also displayed in the seating bowl as well as the outside face of the main scoreboard and visible to passersby along Abbott Road.
Another spot to visit is the Bills Fieldhouse, on the stadium grounds south of the stadium. The team hosts a "gameday experience" with interactive attractions, meet and greet with the cheerleaders and team mascot, and a sizable and well stocked team merchandise store is also located here.
While lacking the opulence and the bells and whistles of the 21st century NFL venue, Ralph Wilson Stadium remains extremely functional. What makes a day here special and extraordinary is the colorful tailgate scene, one of the absolute best in the NFL, and the energy and passion of the fans, again, ranking amongst the best in the league.
The one time I was at Ralph Wilson, it was just average. The stadium is fairly old and doesn't feature any of the shiny amenities that you find at some other NFL venues. Food and beverage options were par for the course. That said, the Bills fans are rabid and truly love their team, and aren't afraid to show it. As the team continues to improve over the coming years I imagine the stadium experience will follow suit.
A stadium with a vanity name sucking up to the owner who hasn't produced a decent on-field product since Doug Flutie was QB.
High parking rates and long traffic jams upon exit are atrocious.Drunken tailgaters and the in-seat fights are common place and just part of the "charm" of going to the game here.
Also, lets not forget the frequent and interminable TV commerical breaks which totally destroy any flow and leave you wondering why you bothered to spend the cash for this fiasco.
For the most part I found Ralph Wilson Stadium itself underrated. The building is fine. The sightlines are great. I even found the fans to be much better than I expected. There is not much surrounding the stadium, but having a downtown stadium and a fantastic tailgating scene are just about mutually exclusive. Tailgating in Orchard Park is the best I have seen in my limited NFL experience. Getting out is a real problem. I love the ring of honour, and the infernal Shout song, although annoying, is uniquely Buffalo.
I had a real enjoyable time when I visited "The Ralph". I thought the fans were great, and the stadium was very adequate for the NFL. Sure there wern't a lot of bells and whistles to it, but I thought it represented Buffalo well. Traffic sucked though.
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