Like a football player at age 40, Ralph Wilson Stadium needs reconstructive surgery. That operation is coming in the next 10 months, part of the $130 million renovation project that gathers steam after the season and should be completed for the season opener in 2014.
The changes are designed to make the aging facility more fan-friendly, increase advertising and sponsorship revenue and thus keep the stadium as a viable home for the Bills for at least the next nine years.
Bills fans won’t have any trouble recognizing the Orchard Park stadium next August, but they also won’t be able to miss the many changes coming to the playpen.
• Entrance gates will be pushed out toward the street, creating a much bigger exterior concourse outside the stadium walls and allowing for live entertainment. Six new “super gates” – down from the current nine – will have more entry lanes, and each gate will have a video board to show pregame shows and highlights.
• A huge new Bills Store will be built behind the scoreboard, off Abbott Road, with a glass exterior and a big Bills logo creating the stadium’s signature look on its new “front door.”
• The current scoreboard will stay about the same size, but its video screen will be about 60 feet wider, because the stationary ads will be removed. The picture also will be crisper, thanks to technological advances.
• Fans sitting in front of that scoreboard will be able to see, without turning completely around, two smaller video scoreboards at the opposite end.
• Other changes include a new Bills-themed East End Lounge with food and drink; moving the press box to the current Red Zone Club in the corner of the tunnel end zone; a vast rewiring to expand Wi-Fi and Das capabilities; the building of a new commissary building for Delaware North; a “freshening up” of the lower-bowl concourse; a refurbishing of concession stands to provide more variety, more local flavor and more permanent space; and 22 percent more restroom space.
The $130 million renovation project – jointly funded by New York State, Erie County and the Bills – includes dozens of changes. While many involve behind-the-scenes structural work, there’s a common denominator for the most noticeable improvements.
“This renovation is geared toward the fan,” Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon said. “It significantly enhances the fans’ game-day experience.”
This is a far different project from the last major renovation, starting in 1998. That $63 million project added new suites and club seats, so that the stadium could compete, revenue-wise, in the new National Football League.
Now, with the Bills facing possible television blackouts for the last four games in Ralph Wilson Stadium this season, the new renovation project aims to increase fans’ comfort levels and access to game-day information, while also providing the team with extra revenue potential. That will come from the expanded Bills store and more sponsorship opportunities on video boards, scoreboards and concession areas.
The obvious question is: How long Ralph Wilson Stadium can remain a viable NFL facility?
The stadium, which cost $22 million to build in 1973 dollars, will celebrate its 50th birthday at the end of the current lease.
“Fifteen years ago, in 1998, a majority of the community thought this was probably the last lease in this building,” Brandon said. “Now we’ve added another 10 years. There’s nothing saying we can’t do that going into the future.”
There’s no easy answer here.
Under a new 10-year lease that begins this season and extends through the 2022 season, Erie County and New York State have virtually an ironclad guarantee that the team will remain here for seven seasons, including this one. Any time before the 2019 season, the team would have to pay $400 million to break the lease.
But after that seventh year, between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, the team could buy out the last three years for $28.4 million, considered a relative pittance, compared with the cost of someone buying the team and building a new stadium in another city.
Assuming the Bills stay here the full 10 years, through 2022, can Ralph Wilson Stadium, with more renovations, remain the Bills’ home after that?
That depends largely on two factors, the stadium’s physical condition and its ability to drive enough ticket sales, sponsorships and advertising revenue.
“I think time will tell,” Brandon said. “As the league continues to grow, can we keep pace with generating that type of revenue through this stadium, as long as the bones and the structure continue to be strong?”
Brandon, while hesitant to talk about the prospects of a new stadium, doesn’t seem enamored with the idea of such a silver bullet to solve this franchise’s challenges.
He is quick to note that Buffalo currently is tied, with Louisville, for the 56th largest market in the United States, and the lack of Fortune 500 companies to support premium seats and sponsorships has been well-documented.
In addition, a shiny new stadium clearly would come with higher prices for tickets, premium seats and sponsorships, in a market that has trouble supporting the current price structure.
The Bills top executive also cited two elements of Ralph Wilson Stadium that may not have a peer throughout the NFL: the stadium’s in-bowl sight lines and its tailgating venue.
Brandon isn’t shy about emphasizing the commitment from all parties, especially owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr., to keep the team here. He and others have stressed that Wilson could have fled for greener pastures any time in the last few years, at a buyout figure as low as a few million dollars.
“Everyone is motivated to keep this franchise viable here for generations to come,” Brandon said. “This lease spotlights the commitment of all the parties.”
Here are more details on some key elements of the renovation project:
• Moving the entry gates out farther from the stadium’s outer walls.
The average NFL stadium, inside the entry gates, has some 1.4 million square feet, while Buffalo’s has about 900,000. The renovation will increase Ralph Wilson Stadium to about 1.2 million square feet, and the exterior concourse will grow by 83 percent.
“It significantly changes the footprint,” Brandon said.
He and Marc Honan, senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting, noted the additional breathing space and comfort for fans entering the exterior concourse.
“Once fans enter the gates, they will have the opportunity to see live entertainment,” Honan said.
And with more entry-gate lines, the entry process should be quicker and cleaner.
• The stadium’s new “front door,” including the huge charging-buffalo logo on the new Bills Store.
“It’s significantly going to upgrade the curb appeal of the campus,” Brandon said. “It will create a very visible and distinct front door that our fans will be proud of.”
The new Bills Store, accessible from inside the stadium on game days, will occupy about 8,500 square feet, more than four times the current store near the stadium. Access will be from the outside on nongame days.
The stadium’s west end also will house a tribute to the team’s Wall of Fame, including interactive touch-screen video terminals for each of the wall’s 28 members.
• The west-end scoreboard will increase in width, from just over 100 feet wide to slightly more than 160. Ads now shown on that extra space will be gone, but more dynamic ads will appear on a large east-end scoreboard, flanked by a pair of smaller boards showing replays and other video content.
• A complete rewiring of the building, to accommodate Wi-Fi and Das.
“Fans constantly want to be updated with statistics on their fantasy teams and the NFL, all of which are difficult under the current conditions,” Brandon said.
In the shorter term, Bills officials are concerned about likely TV blackouts of most of the last four games in Orchard Park: Oct. 13, Cincinnati; Nov. 3, Kansas City; Nov. 17, New York Jets; and Dec. 22, Miami.
About 7,500 tickets each remain for Cincinnati and Kansas City, with more than 10,000 tickets available for each of the last two games.
“It will be a challenge, but we are encouraged by the pace of ticket sales,” Brandon said before the Cleveland game Thursday. “We will continue in earnest to try to sell these games out.”