By Budd Bailey
You only have the chance to discuss what sort of new stadium should be built for its football team every 40 or 50 years or so. We’re in the midst of another one – sort of – and we’re threatening to ignore the correct answer once again.
In Buffalo, the first such chance for such a discussion came around 1937. That’s when War Memorial Stadium was constructed. It was a WPA – Works Progress Administration – project during the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. In other words, it was an excuse to put people to work for a while during the Depression. The facility was nice for a while, but in about 30 years it started to be called by its richly deserved nickname of “The Rockpile.”
Eventually, we realized that it was time to build a new stadium. Historians point out how Erie County had plans to put a shiny new domed stadium in Lancaster in the late 1960s. Momentum for it faded when Buffalo didn’t win an expansion baseball franchise in 1969. Still, a deal was signed in 1970 by the County with a developer for a structure near the Thruway between Walden and Genesee – across the Interstate from Lancaster Speedway, more or less. When the bids came in above the $50 million planned price, Erie County abandoned the project and moved on to build what became known as Rich Stadium in Orchard Park in 1973. Developer Ed Cottrell sued, and eventually won more than $10 million in a settlement. Two County Legislators went to jail on charges of accepting bribes along the way.
Now we’re back to where we were about 50 years ago, hopefully without the bribes. Highmark Stadium, as it is called now, will enter season number 50 in 2022. The facility has been through a couple of major remodeling jobs over the years – costing many times more than the original construction price of $23 million. But it’s been through 49 Orchard Park winters, and it’s showing its age. Just about everyone agrees that it’s time for something new, something more in line with the needs of an NFL team of today.
But any discussion along these lines starts with a simple question: Where to put it? Speaking as someone who moved to Buffalo in 1970, the talk now about the location of a new football structure sounds very familiar. Back then, the discussion was basically a matter of a city location versus a suburban site. The Bills were hoping back then for something with lots of land for a stadium, parking lots, etc., while some city fathers thought a new building could be the centerpiece of urban development in Buffalo. Bills owner Ralph Wilson won that argument.
When I was a teenager, I was just happy that a new stadium was going to be built somewhere – and the Bills wouldn’t be moving to Seattle. I wasn’t fussy about location. Later on, I wondered if a mistake had been made in the placement of Rich Stadium. The building sat by itself at Abbott and Southwestern, surrounded by parking lots and very limited commercial development. In hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to put the stadium downtown. At least you would have had 70,000 people come downtown several times a year.
Plans A & B
But here in 2022, the discussion has changed. Available land is much less plentiful downtown now than it was in 1971. The proposed favored site in that area is called South Park, near the I-190 by Louisiana Street. Getting a big enough footprint for a stadium and some parking lots would be very expensive – almost a half-billion dollars more than the Orchard Park site, according to estimates. That includes infrastructure, and would mean we’d have to find new homes for the old residents. Parking probably would be tight – even if the NFTA extended the rapid transit line a mile to reach a new stadium. (An aside: That should be a no-brainer … but I thought that building a station so that people could walk from the train to their seats in the KeyBank Center without going outside would be a no-brainer.) It would also take a couple of extra years to build.
We’re trying to make land in that area more valuable, but a stadium and its parking lots might sit empty for 350 days a year. There aren’t that many events that can fill a 62,000-seat open-air facility. Is that the best use for the land? I have some serious doubts, especially if money from the state begins to get tight as federal aid is reduced as the pandemic winds down (if it ever does).
That brings us to the Bills’ concept of building the new facility across Abbott Road in the parking lots adjacent to Erie Community College – South. Let’s say it would give us more bang for the buck under the circumstances. As a taxpayer, I’m OK with that. But what type of stadium should it be?
The Bills have asked for something along the lines of an open-air structure that holds 62,000 seats. But everything else about the situation points to one simple conclusion: Any new football stadium in Western New York should have a dome.
Why would it be anything else? First of all, the domed stadium can be used year-round. That means more usage and more events. A little imagination might be necessary, but it’s easy to think about an NCAA Regional Final or even a bowl game in a domed stadium (If they can have one in Boise …). There is also less wear and tear on an enclosed building, particularly one in this part of the world (gone outside lately?). That would mean reduced maintenance costs. It wouldn’t make such a facility a bargain by any means, but the extra investment might have some long-term benefits.
But the obvious benefit is to the spectators. They wouldn’t have to deal with the elements. That’s a constant issue in Western New York, particularly as the NFL schedule creeps later and later into the winter. There could be a game here on January 30 if the weekend’s games break the right way. The one on January 15 against the Patriots was bad enough in terms of cold, although it sure didn’t seem to bother the Bills at all.
A roof means more money
What happens with a domed stadium? The Bills sell more season tickets over the long term. Right now, if the team has a losing record, fewer fans are interested in buying seats to games in December (and now January) that are meaningless. So they pick and choose their games. If I’m guaranteed a good environment to watch football year-round, I’m more willing to plunk down money up front for the whole season.
There’s one unspoken part about Bills’ football right now. If you looked around the parking lots of the games with the Falcons and Jets, you saw plenty of empty space. Remember, season tickets are at an all-time high right now because the team is good. Still, many people bought tickets and didn’t even bother using them because they didn’t want the “outdoor experience.”
Let’s think about attendance for the Falcons, Jets and Patriots games with a dome. It’s a chance to see the team clinch a playoff berth, clinch a division title, and win a playoff game at home in that order. Historically, at least in these parts, that’s rare. Barring a big snowstorm, tickets for all of those games become hot commodities. That means fans show up at the games, pay $40 for parking, buy $15 beer and $8 slices of pizza, snap up $120 jerseys, etc. That’s money that won’t show up on the Bills’ bottom line right now, because some fans would rather stay home and watch the game on television instead of shivering at the stadium.
The Bills are smart to sell the image of hardy fans/hardy team, because they don’t have much choice. I wonder how many people would miss it under a dome. Some would, certainly – at least at first. They’d probably discover that instead of tailgating outside for a couple of hours in winter, they’re happier to go inside where it’s warm – and buy those concession items where the money goes to the Bills instead Wegmans and Tops.
Strategically, the Bills have a strong-armed quarterback in Josh Allen who figures to be here for another decade to 15 years. Wouldn’t you want him playing in perfect conditions for home games? How would the Bills have done against the Patriots in their game in early December without a wind that made passing an adventure? One other point – a dome just might make it easier in free agency to attract speedy wide receivers to come to Buffalo who want to catch some of Allen’s passes.
I’ve been trying to figure out what everyone is thinking when it comes to not wanting a domed stadium. From the Bills’ standpoint, maybe they want to cut down their financial contribution to the project to as little as possible. The pandemic certainly has pounded everyone’s bottom line, and the Pegulas certainly aren’t immune to the cash-flow problems that come with the territory of big sports business these days. It’s tough to imagine how much money the Sabres have lost in the past two years, but even a billionaire might notice it.
As the state, it’s easy to wonder if the Bills quietly have made this a non-negotiable issue. If they don’t get an open-air stadium, the theory goes, they’ll move elsewhere. No one wants that, particularly a Governor running for office in November for the first time. “When there is 18 inches of snow on the ground, a dome always sounds better,” Governor Kathy Hochul recently said, referring to the lake-effect storm that pelted Buffalo this week. “But I do believe that part of the culture of the Buffalo experience is to have the outdoor.” It would be interesting to know how she came up with that conclusion.
I try to be a realist and not a romantic. In this case, I don’t see the romance of shivering through an entertainment event. However, I also see that this sure looks like a done deal – and that any good arguments about the advantages of a dome will fall on deaf ears. That means we’ll have 40 more years to complain before the next argument about building a new stadium comes along. I may not be here to be involved in it, so feel free to clip and save this story. The arguments probably won’t change by then.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)