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Ralph Wilson Stadium… some envision the home of the Buffalo Bills to become the NFL version of Fenway Park. Others look at it as a stadium way past its prime when compared with its peer venues across the NFL. Opened in 1973, what was once an 80,000 seat facility has undergone a number of renovations, the most substantial of which was completed just in time for the 2014 season. The team is in the second year of a ten year lease with Erie County, the owners of the stadium, and with new ownership of the team under the Pegula family, the franchise’s long term future in Buffalo and Western New York seems to be secured.
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".
In the old days, concessions were never given much attention at The Ralph. The spartan menu of hot dogs, popcorn, soda pop and beer meant that patrons should best plan their own tailgate fare or stop somewhere for pre or post game food and libations. No more. One of the hallmarks of the recent renovation has been a substantial upgrade to the offerings and not just in the premium club level areas.
The theme here is on Buffalo products, ingredients, and food items which are a staple of the region. A specialty hot dog stand offers a Buffalo chicken mac-n-cheese dog, a Buffalo chicken dog and a hot chili cheese dog ($10 with side of kettle chips).
The famed local pizza chain, La Novas, has abundantly large pizza slices for $7. Buffalo's famed Beef on Weck is widely available ($10 with side of kettle chips). Boneless Buffalo wings, $10. Of course, staples such as Italian sausage ($7.50), Double burger with fries ($12), 20 oz draft beer ($9) and bottled Pepsi products ($4.75) are also sold.
Tim Hortons coffee, a Canadian chain with a substantial history and presence right in Buffalo, sells for $3. A massive Coors Light sports bar has been carved out from space once devoted to the administration building in the tunnel end zone. With large garage door openings, huge bar space, yet more concession kiosks, and craft beers, it is a popular gathering spot.
It was interesting to note that new owner Terry Pegula was traveling through Canada in the weeks leading up to the transfer of title of the team, and was tuned in to a local sports talk show. Fans were calling in voicing apprehension about the possible relocation of the team, and Pegula said he could sense the real fear in people's voices about the possibility that the Bills could be no more. Buffalo and their beloved Bills are synonymous; the franchise is cemented to the spirit of the community, probably like nowhere else, and that energy can be felt on game day both inside and outside the stadium.
Ralph Wilson Stadium is all about the tailgating. The stadium is surrounded by vast swaths of open parking, almost 200 acres and over 15,000 spaces, and come game day it is a sea of parties and revelers, some coming in buses and recreational vehicles. A new team store on the Abbott Road side of the stadium and the exterior plaza serves as sort of a gathering spot and a photo opp location in the shadows of the stadium's main marquee.
Inside, the "Shout" song, the team's anthem which was originally a marketing jingle rolled out way back in 1986, is pumped out on the team's introduction on to the field and whenever the Bills score points. A boisterous drum corps is parked in the seats next to the entrance tunnel and helps to lead the chants. The air is usually crisp and cold. The scene is electric.
Orchard Park is an upscale bedroom community about 15 miles from the center of downtown Buffalo. The stadium itself is located in a somewhat sterile yet clean and groomed area, adjacent to a community college campus, and pretty much surrounded by office parks, strip plazas, car dealerships and a few residential neighborhoods.
So what creates the "neighborhood" on game days is the influx of tailgaters. Add the food trucks, cart vendors shucking their wares, live music and for one day the RWS community becomes a city.
Two taverns located in easy walking distance of the Ralph - the Big Tree Inn and Danny's South are popular Bills establishments and pretty crowded on game days. Duff's on Orchard Park road in Orchard Park is a Buffalo institution and arguably offers some of the best wings in town. Quaker Crossing shopping plaza on Mile Strip Road, about a mile north of the stadium, is the home of a number of chains - Red Robin, Longhorn Steakhouse and Cold Stone Creamery.
Despite the lack of on field success by the Bills (no playoff appearances since 1999), the team has a pretty solid and robust season ticket base in the mid 40,000 range, and early season games always sell out early. The team has worked hard to establish a regional footprint, locating its training camp facility 80 miles east in suburban Rochester, and also markets heavily to the Canadian fan base in Southern Ontario.
The cold weather games are always a bit more of a chore to sell out.
The team has taken huge measures to curb fan violence in the stands, and with heightened security measures, they try to identify and restrict intoxicated fans from entering the stadium. Fans seem to have responded well.
Especially with the $120 million in renovations, including huge new gathering areas and massive gates way outside the facilities, a fresh new look and coats of paint and modern touches everywhere, there seems to be a new sense of keeping the building clean and tidy and that also includes better behavior. What was a sometimes violent and uninhabitable family experience is once again becoming a welcoming environment.
The one unfortunate part of the access to the venue is the lack of suitable public transportation. Back in the 1980's a regional 46 mile light rail master plan was drawn up, which would have included a line right out to the stadium. Only 6 ½ miles of that plan was ever actually constructed, and today, access by car or private bus or RV is pretty much the only way to get to Ralph Wilson Stadium.
That being said, the grid of expressways and divided highways (I-90, US 219, and NY-5 along the lake) is well laid out and offers multiple access points towards the stadium property. Good traffic management gets fans into the stadium lots with ease. There are also a multitude of private lots in all directions offering off site parking options, most offering tailgating for fans as well.
Bills tickets are a bargain. They offer some of the cheapest prices in the NFL, and starting in 2014, have gone to variable pricing to offer better single game pricing for some of the colder weather games. Lower level seats run from $59-$99 on average and upper level seats from $48-$79.
Club seating runs from $175-$274 per ticket, with access to premium lounges and most seating underneath the upper deck overhang for weather protection. There are also two indoor club areas in the corners, with ticket prices running $320 each and that includes complimentary food and bar service. On site parking is $25. Private lots are scattered throughout the neighborhood around the stadium and can be had for as low as $5.
The most disappointing part of the latest stadium renovation is the lack of attention or honor to the franchise's history. Nowhere in the concourses are there murals of the great historic moments, or timelines, or anything suggesting the great things that happened here or at the team's previous home at War Memorial Stadium. The team does, however, have a Wall of Fame that now bears 29 names. The team's founding owner, Ralph C. Wilson Jr, who passed away in March of 2014, has his name displayed in gold.
With the upgrades, the seating bowl has an entire fresh and super modern new look, with a fabulous new HD scoreboard, two companion smaller HD boards in the other corners. One offers non-stop stats and fantasy league updates, and there are ribbon boards in the tunnel end zone and flanking the upper deck railing on each side. Coats of red and blue paint are everywhere, a better sound system, and the flags of all 32 NFL teams adorning the top of the upper deck makes this interior a pleasure to the eye.
The third star goes to the beloved "Shout " song, a Buffalo made takeoff on the famed 1959 Isley Brothers song. If you're a Bills fan traveling out of town for a game, and you spot another Bills fan wearing the gear, you don't say "hi" or do a fist bump or high five; you sing out "Hey ay ay ay" and chances are you'll get the same melody right back at you. Shout is the unofficial anthem of the City of Buffalo and binds the city in a very special way.
When it became official that Terry and Kim Pegula were designated as the new owners of the team, and the sale became official, the community exhaled in relief and celebrated in delight. There was real fear and consternation that the franchise would move upon the death of founding owner Ralph Wilson. The sharks were circling in Toronto, with rocker Jon Bon Jovi fronting a potential ownership group, offering half baked assurances and phony platitudes that they would not move the team from Buffalo. Some pundits said that Buffalo's time had passed, the city was shrinking, no corporate support, too poor, not ready to play with the big boys anymore.
Rest easy. The franchise's long term future in Buffalo is assured. A deep pocketed owner who also owns the Buffalo Sabres and paid cash for the team (a record $1.4-billion), an often divisive and fractured local and state political/governmental leadership which surprisingly came together to cooperate and insure that the team would remain here. Add ample support from the fan base and business community, and it all came together in a perfect storm of events and now the Buffalo Bills will be Buffalo's for future generations.
The next step? A new stadium. Pegula stated at his opening conference that in time the team would plan and design a stadium for the team. The Bills will continue playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium for the near future, which with all the renovations and shiny new amenities, remains very functional, although light years behind the peer venues recently opened or under construction around the National Football League. A working panel of officials from various levels of government and the team has been constituted to plan the long term home for the team. Meanwhile, a private company has rolled out an elaborately designed plan for a retractable roof facility on Buffalo's Outer Harbor waterfront, a plan that has not gotten great traction. Consensus in the community is growing that any new stadium should be built in Buffalo and close to downtown.
At this point there is no rush to get a new stadium done immediately, but the discussion, debate, and planning will be exciting to watch. It will be another element of a renaissance and resurgence which is sweeping across the entire city and region.
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 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.
A true old school stadium that makes you appreciate how football used to be played and watched. Fans tailgate from the day before the game. There were a few drunks, but nothing out of control that I noticed. Little around the area, but there is some beautiful forest that you can drive through and appreciate the foliage in the fall. Pay $15 for parking along Southwestern Blvd - easy out after the game. Lots of historical touches for a franchise that has been around for over 50 years.
The home of the NFL Buffalo Bills, Ralph Wilson Stadium, nee Rich Stadium, is now one of the deans of football venues and one of the oldest stadiums in existence. It opened its doors in 1973 with the franchise moving from old and decrepit War Memorial Stadium in the inner city. When this place opened its doors, local fans were pinching themselves with delight – a clean and sparkling new stadium, with a real dot matrix scoreboard, lots of parking in a seemingly safe neighborhood in the upscale suburb of Orchard Park.
Since those days just about every other NFL team has opened or refurbished their stadiums, but while “The Ralph” may not have all the bells, whistles, and revenue generators of its peer venues, it still remains an extremely functional and resilient football stadium even after 40 years of use.
4360 Milestrip Rd
Blasdell, NY 14219
4277 Abbott Rd
Orchard Park, NY 14127
4300 Abbott Rd
Orchard Park, NY 14127
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