It was 30 years ago this month that Buffalo’s quest to build what some had hoped would be a major league baseball stadium vaulted into the national spotlight.
The Washington Post published an article that questioned the wisdom of cities like Buffalo seeking state and federal funds for stadiums where no major league tenants had been secured.
The article irked then-Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin, who was the leading force in efforts to build Pilot Field. Griffin fired off a letter that challenged the Post’s “appalling” criticism of Buffalo’s push to build a major league facility. Griffin argued that Memorial Auditorium, home of the Buffalo Sabres, and War Memorial Stadium, the first home of the Buffalo Bills, were built with federal money “without major tenants in hand.”
After lengthy studies and significant public debate, plans were finalized to build an open-air stadium at Washington and Swan streets on land near the Joseph Ellicott Preservation District.
Joseph E. Spear at the time was a young architect with HOK Sports Facilities Group, the firm that designed Pilot Field. He recently looked back on the decision to abandon the dome-stadium concept and recalled that the state assembled a blue-ribbon panel to study the issue, a panel that Spear said included Donald Trump and George Steinbrenner.
“Thankfully, I think they said to the Governor’s Office it should be open-air. It should not be a dome. That was the first step,” Spear said. “Then they went on to say that you should build your ballpark for the (Triple-A) team. Don’t build a major league baseball park on the come, because it may or may not happen. I think those two things were very fortuitous.”
At the time the new stadium opened (April 14, 1988), there was hope it could attract a Major League Baseball franchise. But three years after Pilot Field opened, the Rich family ended its quest to snare a major league team.
Bisons President Robert E. Rich Jr. said in 1991 that Buffalo’s status as a small television market was the biggest negative factor in Buffalo’s ill-fated bid for a major league franchise.
“Baseball went with choices where they could generate large local TV money based on TV households,” Rich said during a 1991 news conference at Pilot Field.
The decision to build a “new, old-looking” ballpark in downtown’s core was a “revolutionary” idea that has produced economic and quality-of-life benefits to the region, said Jonathan A. Dandes, president of Rich Baseball operations.
The Bisons’ relatively new association with the Toronto Blue Jays has opened a new market for the team in Southern Ontario, going all the way to Toronto, Dandes said. An influx of Canadian fans is partially credited for raising attendance from the downtown ballpark’s all-time low of 521,530 fans in the 2011 season. Last year, the Bisons reported that paid attendance was 537,747.
Still, paid attendance at Bisons games over the past five seasons has averaged 543,000, the lowest five-year average since the ballpark opened.
In each of the first five years, paid attendance ranged from 1.13 million to 1.24 million. In the years between 2000 and 2004, the average annual paid attendance exceeded 628,500.
“We’ve just done some ... research that shows that as a percentage of total population, our fan base has stayed the same or increased slightly,” Dandes asserted, noting that the region’s population has also declined.
However, an analysis of paid attendance by The Buffalo News based on figures the Bisons supplied shows a decline of more than 50 percent when average attendance over the first 10 years is compared with average attendance in the most recent 10 years.
Population declines don’t come remotely close to the Bisons’ drop in paid attendance since the late 1980s.
Nonetheless, Bisons officials are confident that the recent burst of economic development activity bodes well for future events at Coca-Cola Field.
“I’ve been saying for many years now that what this particular part of the city needed was critical mass,” Dandes said. “We’re thrilled at development of Canalside. ... We also have an outstanding relationship with the Sabres, and we couldn’t be happier with their building (HarborCenter).”