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  • Writer's pictureDave Cottenie

Highmark Stadium - Buffalo Bills

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.00

Highmark Stadium 1 Bills Drive Orchard Park, NY 14127

Year Opened: 1973 Capacity: 71,608


Saying Goodbye to The Ralph

With the merger of the AFL and the NFL, a new stadium was required for the Buffalo Bills to remain part of the league. A move from the old War Memorial Stadium, or Rockpile as it was known, required owner Ralph Wilson to explore some relocation possibilities. This hastened the stadium project and Rich Stadium was built in 1973.

The capacity, which was the major drawback at the time, was inflated to the modern-day 71,000. Over the years, owner Ralph Wilson became one of the most iconic in the NFL and the Bills would go on to enjoy some dubious success appearing in four straight Super Bowls in the 90s. After the death of Ralph Wilson, and the scare of possible ownership by Donald Trump, the Bills would settle into the sports portfolio of Terry and Kim Pegula, who also own the Buffalo Sabres among other properties. The naming rights of Rich Stadium would change hands a few times and the stadium would be known by the name of the founder for quite some time.

In 2021, the stadium was renamed Highmark Stadium. There is not much time left for the former Ralph Wilson Stadium as a brand new, 64,000-seat, $1.4 billion stadium has been approved and will be built across from Erie Community College in Orchard Park.

Food & Beverage 4

The concession scene at Highmark Stadium is decent. All of the expected stadium items can be found including hot dogs, burgers, popcorn, and others available. Some local favorite brands can also be found in the stadium including Dinosaur BBQ, La Nova Pizza, and Buffalo Wings. Pepsi products are the soft drink of choice and on most gamedays, especially later in the season, Tim Horton’s coffee would be the necessary item for warming up.

In what most Canadians would find a curious development, the most prevalent beers at Highmark Stadium seem to be Molson Canadian and Labatt’s Blue, for decades fierce competitors. There is plenty available for fans to keep full, however, with such a massive tailgating scene in Orchard Park, many do not worry too much about what is available for eats.

Atmosphere 3

Highmark Stadium is one of the simplest in the NFL. The exterior is not overly sophisticated and there isn’t too much about the venue itself that inspires creativity or excitement. The east entry is where the Bills Store can be found and just outside of it, fans will find the 716 sign and a Bills logo on the turf, perfect for photo ops. The Founders Plaza also features a bronze statue of Ralph Wilson which is a spot fan will want to see.

On the inside, it is clear why Highmark Stadium is up for replacement. The seating bowl is wide open, not a positive characteristic when the elements of a Western New York winter are factored in. The lower bowl, which is clearly the best place to sit for some protection from the wind, features plastic stadium seats, while the upper bowl has bleacher benches with rounded backs.

The field runs from west to east and the main videoboards are found above the east and west end zones. For that perfect fifty-yard line logo picture, fans will want to sit on the south side. The interior of the seating bowl gives fans a massive look at the Bills Wall of Fame. Buffalo legends are enshrined on the facia and include the names of Jack Kemp, Pat McGroder, Tom Sestak, Billy Shaw, Ralph Wilson, Elbert Dubenion, Mike Stratton, Joe Ferguson, Marv Levy, Joe DeLamielleure, Robert James, trainer Edward Abramoski, Bob Kalsu, George Saimes, Jim Kelly, Fred Smerlas, Kent Hull, Darryl Talley, Jim Ritcher, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Steve Tasker, Bruce Smith, Booker Edgerson, Phil Hansen, Bill Polian, Van Miller, Lou Saban, Cookie Gilchrist and (unfortunately) O.J. Simpson.

The gameday production is not over the top. At the game reviewed, a local high school marching band performed and four Apache helicopters partook in a flyover. The Bills enter the field from the east, through a number of Bills logo structures that blow smoke and pyro. The cheerleading squad, the Jills has been disbanded for a number of years under suspicious circumstances regarding being severely underpaid. Overall, there is not much that really stands out about the gameday production and there is more of a focus on the game itself, which is not a bad thing.

Neighborhood 2

Highmark Stadium is located on the outskirts of Orchard Park, south of Buffalo. All of the lures of Downtown Buffalo is lost on the location of the football stadium. Highmark Stadium is immediately surrounded by parking lots. Although the Bills boast one of the top tailgating scenes in the country, there are very few options for fans before or after the game to get food or drink.

The SUNY Erie Community College campus is to the west of Highmark Stadium. A couple of small options include Polked Yolk Abbott, O’Neills Stadium Inn, Danny’s South, and Louie’s Texas Red Hots. A better idea would be to stop in Buffalo proper and find an option there.

There are a number of sporting options in Buffalo, but nothing really out as far as Highmark Stadium. Downtown, fans can find the homes of the Buffalo Sabres, Buffalo Bandits, and Buffalo Bisons. Canisius College plays hockey downtown at LECOM HarborCenter and basketball on their campus at Koessler Athletic Center.

The University at Buffalo can be found in Amherst, northeast of Buffalo, where the Bulls play on campus. Football is found at UB Stadium and basketball is at Alumni Arena. Fans may also consider the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino downtown. There are a few options for hotels in Orchard Park. The Stadium View Inn and EconoLodge Buffalo are the closest.

Fans 4

Buffalo Bills fans have the most fascinating dichotomy. Support for the Bills is stronger than ever with their most recent winning incarnation. Support was always strong for the Bills who have that “little engine that could” mentality, determined to remain afloat with the NFL giants coming from one of the smallest markets in the league. Special attention must be paid to the hardiness of the fans who brave the worst elements in the NFL.

On occasions when there is tremendous snow, Bills fans will volunteer to shovel the stands to make the stadium slightly more hospitable. The Bills Mafia moniker has struck a chord in Buffalo and is a badge that is worn with pride. Bills Mafia has claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to various charities, most notably to charitable organizations deemed important by opposing players.

The dichotomy comes on gameday, where Bills fans are among the loudest, rowdiest, and most drunk in the NFL. The tradition of destroying tables at the tailgate is no longer newsworthy; it happens so often. Bills fans can be rude, crude, and merciless.

Access 2

Highmark Stadium is one of the toughest stadiums to enter and exit. The rural stadium, located west of Highway 219, has few entry points. Due to the early nature of the tailgate, getting into the parking lot is actually much easier than getting out with fans trickling in at different times. Upon leaving after the game, fans should allot at least one to two hours just to get out of the parking lot. It is curious how difficult it is to get out of Highmark Stadium when college venues in similar situations seem to have it all figured out.

There is some public transit that Abbott Road and some gameday transit available. Fans who are interested should check out the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority website for fares, maps, and schedules. Getting around Highmark Stadium is not terribly difficult, however, the concourses can get crowded with the weather being an issue and during halftime. Washroom facilities are hit and miss as there are still some washroom facilities that feature the dreaded troughs.

Return on Investment 3

With the recent success, the Buffalo Bills have enjoyed comes greater scarcity and cost with regard to tickets. The entire 2022 season stock of tickets was sold out very quickly and tickets on the secondary market are starting at around $130 per ticket. According to the Fan Cost Index for 2022, the Buffalo Bills are well below the NFL average of $590 and are the 27th most expensive experience in the NFL at $520. However, the NFL is an extremely expensive ordeal and the “once in a lifetime” pricing model is a detriment to their experience. Combine the price with the very real possibility of some less-than-comfortable weather and there is plenty to be desired with the return on investment for the Buffalo Bills.

Extras 3

An extra mark for the Buffalo Bills galvanizing their existence in Western New York with the approval of the new stadium to be built near the current Highmark Stadium. An extra mark for the members of Bills Mafia making significant financial donations to numerous causes that have affected both Bills players and their opponents.

An extra mark for the growing recognition and appreciation of the four Bills Super Bowl appearances in the 90s. An extra mark for Highmark Stadium is the only NFL stadium in New York State. An extra mark LOST for O.J. Simpson is still being recognized on the Bills Wall of Fame.

Final Thoughts

It will be interesting to see what a brand-new stadium will bring to the Buffalo Bills experience. There were plenty of opposing views as to what the new stadium should look like and where it should be. Until that time, the Bills are still making memories at the former Ralph Wilson Stadium. NFL fans who have yet to visit Highmark Stadium may want to make their way there before it is too late.


Follow all of Dave’s sporting adventures on Twitter @profan9 and on Instagram.

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