When installed 13 years ago, the Ralph Wilson Stadium JumboTron was called the biggest in America, a 1,300-square-foot screen so dominating that coach Marv Levy found that it distracted his Bills when flashing highlights from games across the country.
This summer, the Bills will install a new screen twice as large -- a high-definition display more sophisticated than the one that will grace Sunday's Super Bowl in Miami.
In addition, crews will ring the stadium with a new electronic "ribbon board" that can carry messages as dazzling as the ribbon board in HSBC Arena.
Just as in 1994, taxpayers will sponsor the upgrades as part of long-term improvement contracts for the county-owned stadium.
Even under a state-appointed control board, the county gives the Bills an annual operating grant, which will reach $3.8 million this year, contributes to game-day expenses and improves the facility, this time with a cutting-edge scoreboard.
In 2006, about $2.5 million was set aside for a part of the project. Legislators are now being asked to borrow the $2.75 million that will complete the work in time for the National Football League preseason. A vote could come Thursday, since the Finance and Management Committee raised no objection last week.
In theory, said Public Works Commissioner John Loffredo, it is wiser to constantly improve the stadium than to replace it for hundreds of millions of dollars, as Pittsburgh and Seattle did with their 1970s-era structures.
When adjusting for inflation, the new scoreboard is cheaper than the aging JumboTron, for which the Bills can no longer find replacement parts. The JumboTron in 1994 cost the equivalent of $8 million today. The new "Mitsubishi high-definition LED video display" and the ribbon board cost $5.2 million.
A few Major League Baseball parks feature high-definition scoreboards, among them Atlanta's Turner Field and Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, formerly Comiskey Park. But so far in the NFL, true high-definition screens, with 1,080 lines of vertical resolution, are rare.
Buffalo's new board will feature a higher resolution and sharper image than the high-definition screen at Dolphins Stadium, said Stephen Asposto, the Bills' video director and engineer.
It will stand 33.5-feet high, only 2 feet higher than the JumboTron. But it spans 82.8 feet, about twice the JumboTron's width and wider than needed for game replays. Roughly one-third of the screen will be reserved for game statistics, player profiles or advertising.
Both Loffredo and Asposto described a JumboTron on its last legs, many of its cathode ray tubes pummeled by the weather and the years.
Unable to find new tubes, the Bills scavenged them from the screen's edges and positioned them in the center. "So the center looks pretty good," Loffredo said. "But if you look at the edges, they don't pick up what they should."
Two seasons ago, Asposto's trained eyes saw the screen flickering. Only after he pointed it out to others did they notice. "I was just afraid it was going to die on me someday," he said.
Images on the Mitsubishi screen are provided by millions of LEDs, or light emitting diodes. In its documents, Mitsubishi claims pictures on the screen are as true to life as the actual event.
The old JumboTron will not be sold, donated or reclaimed in any way. "It basically is going to get the wrecking ball," Asposto said. "It's not cost-effective to disassemble it unit by unit, pack it up and transport it and hope it's still in working order when it gets to wherever it's going."
Asposto said he remembered the flap in 1995, when some Bills and Levy found highlights from an Indianapolis-Miami contest distracting. There were fans who then felt insulted when the players criticized the use of the giant scoreboard, which the fans/taxpayers had provided.
Asposto said the use of the new scoreboard will need to revolve around the team's wishes and the action on the field.
"You don't want a lot of moving aspects while play is going on," especially on the ribbon board, agreed Marc J. Honan, the Bills' vice president for marketing and broadcasting.