46 years and counting! This Sunday as the Buffalo Bills host the Los Angeles Chargers, their home field, once Rich Stadium, now New Era Field, and often and always ‘The Ralph,’ will enter its 46th year housing NFL games for western New York. And it doesn’t look a day over ...50? It’s an old stadium.
Constructed in 1973 in Orchard Park, amid much debate and concern over where the newly secured Buffalo football franchise would call its home (just like today), the naming rights of the open-air stadium was bought by Buffalo-based Rich Products and had a capacity of just over 80,000. There have been some renovations over the years, but those have mainly dealt with installing and later updating the Jumbotron, adding suites, and upgrading the artificial turf (this past offseason, upgrades were made to the club level, creating quite the disparity between that and well, the rest of stadium experience).
The Ralph is among the oldest in the NFL, but it doesn’t quite fit in with the other historic venues for a slew of reasons. Alas, while there has certainly been some memorable games here, it doesn't quite have the same legend and aura surrounding it as does the Los Angeles Coliseum, Lambeau Field, Arrowhead Stadium, or Soldier Field. Only five teams are currently playing in older stadiums, but even Green Bay and Kansas City brought proper renovations to their homes, because those edifices aren't going anywhere. Meanwhile, 24 teams are playing in stadiums that have been built since 1995 - the Atlanta Falcons have played in two new stadiums in a 25-year span, which seems excessive (taxpayers might agree). The Bills, as tends to be the case on most fronts, are in limbo.
The cold and concrete oasis sits in the middle of nowhere some 15 miles away from downtown. It’s a trek to drive in, and becomes a labyrinth mess of cars leaving on game day, and that’s when weather conditions are fine. When there is a snowstorm, the team has to offer to pay people $10 an hour to come shovel. Also there is a chance you won’t be able to see the field if it's snowing. Seat cushions (at least most of them) are prohibited, meaning those metal benches you sit on for three hours are going to be mighty cold and uncomfortable. And you must be strategic (and hygienic, please) when venturing to the bathroom. There are still troughs in the mensroom. What year is this?
Then there is the tailgate. Bills fans have gained notoriety, proudly, for their levels of absurd behavior and penchant towards recklessness while pre-game partying. Videos circulating online have shown said prideful members of the so-called ‘Bills Mafia’ doing drugs, having sex, fighting card tables, and playing with fire. A couple years ago, there were also shirts circulating showing NFLer Colin Kaepernick in crosshairs. The parking lot at New Era Field is a place where you can be yourself, express yourself,and even harm yourself if you so wish.
The entirety of the on-site gameday experience doesn't’ necessarily seem uniquely Buffalo, but it does seem fitting for the team. It’s old and noteworthy, but not particularly special outside of Buffalo. There is energy and enthusiasm, but both seem regularly misplaced; you feel far better before the game than you do during and after, more often than not. Moments of interest or even charm are far outweighed by discomfort and frustration. Did I mention there are troughs in the men’s rooms? Any attempts to renovate and better the situation (like getting a new jumbotron or trading up in the draft for Sammy Watkins or Josh Allen) doesn’t really get at the major issues. The Bills experience has a certain charm, but it’s stuck in a time gone by, trapped in a cycle that annually repeats itself. Even when something great happens, like not hurting yourself jumping from the top of your car, or making the playoffs, it wasn't at all expected and now you don't know what to do.
There has been years of talk about a new or renovated stadium coming, and it keeps getting pushed back; there has been years of talk about a better Bills product on the field with franchise players leading the way, and it just keeping getting pushed back.
By the way, never, ever wear open-toed shoes to the stadium. You will want to cut off said toes before the day is through. Game on!
Week Two Mini Preview: The Josh Allen Experiment begins! It was not at all planned this way, but it’s here, so let’s go with it.The best case scenario is that the team around him plays harder, there is a better offensive scheme to protect against an aggressive pass rush and loaded box, and the secondary is fierce against one of the best offenses in the league. The Bills could also benefit from the Charger’s annual September missteps and their head-scratching coaching decisions. However, a team that has playoff aspirations like L.A. isn’t likely to start 0-2, especially after gifting the Chiefs a win. This is a much better offense than the Ravens, but the result is most likely the same. The Bills will lose again, they won’t cover, but they will at least get an offensive touchdown this game. I hope.