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An ‘epic’ New Era begins with Buffalo Bills-cap company’s partnership

The day would be one of the biggest in his company’s 96-year history.

The announcement would formalize New Era Cap’s “epic” branding effort. It would put a cap on a plan hatched five years ago, one that had then-owner and stadium namesake Ralph Wilson’s blessing.

But on the morning that Ralph Wilson Stadium would become New Era Field, the cap company’s CEO Chris Koch was barely talking.

He was too busy thinking, prepping. At 11 a.m. Thursday, Koch ascended a small stage set up on the 20-yard line to announce the naming-rights deal alongside his wife, Lindsey Koch, and Bills owner Terry Pegula.

Earlier that day at home, Koch had been quiet.

“We didn’t talk all that much this morning,” said Lindsey Koch, New Era’s vice president of strategic branding.

That’s partly because Chris Koch was studying his speech while slipping into a sleek, camera-friendly blue suit. And it’s partly because he was mulling over the enormity of the deal for his company.

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[Gallery: From Rich Stadium to the Ralph]

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Not necessarily the financials, though according to media reports, they are considerable – more than $35 million over the remaining seven seasons of the Bills’ stadium lease.

New Era can handle that. The company has licensing deals around the globe, including pacts with every major American sports league. It annually produces 50 million caps – enough to stretch from Buffalo to Hong Kong if you lined up them end-to-end.

The impact of the naming-rights deal, and what triggers reflection and a touch of nerves for Koch, is the reach: It puts New Era – and therefore, him – more in the spotlight.

“I do a lot of speeches,” said Koch, who in public possesses a soft-spoken, quiet demeanor, “but when you’re standing up in front of media, it’s a lot different than standing up in front of 200 people in the office and talking about results from the first quarter.”

New Era is well known as the official on-field headwear provider for Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Its caps are ubiquitous in movies, television shows and music. But the Kochs are aiming higher: They want to establish New Era as an instantly recognizable lifestyle brand – think Nike, Adidas, Under Armour – by capitalizing on the company’s dominance in sports and pop culture.

It’s a daunting goal that demands a multifaceted approach, including targeted, high-end reach-out to influencers in the sports, fashion and entertainment worlds. For example, last month at the Major League Baseball All Star Game in San Diego, New Era held an exclusive, two-day pool party attended by athletes, models, entertainers, agents and sports executives.

This week, Lindsey Koch traveled to do site visits for similar events at the Super Bowl and NBA All Star Game, arriving home late Wednesday night, just in time for the stadium press conference.

The Bills naming-rights deal is another example.

Before this, New Era’s venue advertising has been limited to signage in baseball dugouts and stadium walls. But five years ago, Bills President Russ Brandon approached Koch with an idea.

“What do you think about putting your name on the stadium?” Koch recalled Brandon asking him.

Koch hadn’t thought about it at all. Ralph Wilson, the Bills founder, had chosen to put his own name on the stadium; the idea didn’t even seem approachable.

But it was. Brandon told Koch to think about it. Koch told Brandon he’d be interested in talking more.

Wilson, meanwhile, quietly supported the possibility of New Era someday buying the naming rights. But what few people knew in detail back then – though many largely suspected it in general – is Wilson, Brandon and a few other key members of the Bills’ braintrust were laying out a plan designed to keep the team in Buffalo after the owner’s death.

As the Bills worked out their 2012 stadium lease with Erie County and New York State, one of the team’s goals was to provide a way for a company – like New Era – to buy the naming rights. That influx of cash would be an attractive selling point to a new owner.

“Our thought process at the time was to provide a clean building to the new ownership group to make sure that we derived as much value as possible at that time,” Brandon said. “This was all a part of a plan.”

Wilson died in 2014, and Terry and Kim Pegula bought the team later that year.

Last month, the Pegulas officially offered Koch and New Era the opportunity to buy the naming rights.

“It’s something that’s big,” Lindsey Koch said. “It’s epic. It’s what we’re trying to do right now ... It’s not just sports. It’s beyond that. This is about our community, our home, our making a stamp.”

News of the deal created buzz on social media this week: Will fans embrace a new nickname (the Bills are pushing “The Cap”) or cling to “The Ralph”?

Should the Pegulas have sold the rights or kept the team founder’s name on the stadium? (In a statement this week, Ralph Wilson’s widow Mary Wilson endorsed the name shift and pointed to Founder’s Plaza in front of the stadium, which includes a statue of the original owner, as a lasting form of tribute to her late husband.)

“It’s a new day,” said Tod Martin, CEO of New Era’s marketing agency of record, the Martin Group, and a close friend of the Kochs.

“We all move on and things evolve and I’m sure Ralph blessed this thing,” he said. “But some of the pushback early on, I was like, ‘What?’ New Era is making a statement and commitment to our community … I would hope people embrace it. I think they will.”

Before taking the stage Thursday, Koch was joking with his communications director, Dana Marciniak, about the media coverage.

“Don’t show me the bad ones,” he said lightheartedly.

But as he turned serious and started talking about family, Koch seemed at ease with knowing that Wilson himself was open to the idea of shifting the naming rights to a Buffalo-based, family-held business. New Era was founded by his great-grandfather in 1920; Koch took over as CEO of the company when his father, David, died nearly 15 years ago.

Still, what made him comfortable also doubled as a source of nerves.

That morning at home, and while mingling at the stadium, Koch was focused on keeping composed during his speech, even debating whether to wear sunglasses on stage. (He did, until taking the podium.) There was a video tribute to the company. There were multiple generations of his family watching from white folding chairs on the turf. There was the billboardlike sign on the front of the stadium, with “New Era Field” flanking images of red, white and blue Bills hats and the words “THIS IS THE CAP of Buffalo.”

Above all, there was a single line, right at the end, that he wanted to nail.

“We all know my father is looking down from the heavens above with a big smile on his face,” Koch said. “And so to close, I just want to say, ‘Dad, this one’s for you.’ ”

It was a verbal tip of the cap, and Koch’s voice didn’t crack.

email: toshei@buffnews.com

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