The Buffalo Bills weren't kidding when they suggested that the team would move into a "new stadium" in 1999.
Starting that season, season-ticket holders will lose their existing seat assignments and choose new seats, strictly on a seniority basis, Bills officials said Monday.
That means that a person who has had season tickets back to 1960 would have first choice on new seats, followed by season-ticket holders with descending years of seniority.
"What we have, we believe, is a brand-new stadium," Bills Treasurer Jeffrey C. Littmann said Monday. "We thought the best way to do it was to give the people who have been with us the longest the first option to select a seat in the new stadium."
Many of the details on how season-ticket holders will choose their new seats remain unclear, including the exact timing. It will be done some time after the current season, but well before the 1999 season, when the new seat assignments will take effect.
Two changes triggered by the projected $63.2 million renovation before the 1999 season forced the Bills to consider the reassignment of all season-ticket holders:
Approximately 2,500 season-ticket holders in rows 40-45 at the top of the lower bowl will lose their seats to the 76 new dugout suites being built there (except for below the press box). Many of these fans have had season tickets for 20 years or more.
Because new armchair seats will replace aluminum bench seats in the lower bowl, one or two seats per row will be lost in each section to make room.
"The physical reality is that the seat is gone," Littmann said. "We're putting in new armchair seats."
One big question still looms: Will longtime season-ticket holders, including those who have had the same seats since Rich Stadium opened in 1973, be able to keep their seats?
"If their seniority is high, there's a good chance they'll be able to retain the same location," Littmann replied.
The Bills realize that football fans are creatures of habit, that many fans may be upset by having to move.
But they say they researched the issue -- by talking to other teams, reviewing the Bills' move from War Memorial Stadium to Rich Stadium, talking to current season-ticket holders and relying on their own experiences.
"It was pretty much a universal opinion, that the seniority system was the way to go," Littmann said. "It just seemed to make the most sense."
The Bills originally had planned to offer their displaced fans the best seats available. But that would mean that some fans with more than 20 years of season-ticket seniority would be sitting in worse seats than those with fewer than 10 years.
And Jim Miller, Bills vice president for administration, went through a similar seat displacement while working for the New Orleans Saints.
"We tried to put the people in the best available seats, and it didn't work," he said. "It wasn't fair to the people who had been with us the longest time."
Here's how the new seat reassignment might work: Fans with seniority dating to 1960-1963 may have a specified week to come in and choose their seats, followed by 1964-1967, and so on.
It's also not clear whether groups of people who have sat together for years will be able to get seats together.
Like the dozen or so people in Aisle E9, rows 43 and 44, who have sat together for many years.
"The thing that really upsets us the most is that we want to stay together," Frank Sarzyniak, 44, of North Tonawanda said before Sunday's Bills-Lions game. "We have 12 people here who are a family. We exchange Christmas presents and birthday presents (and attend each other's family wakes). Wherever they put us, we would like to stay together."
The Bills plan to provide their season-ticket holders with more information about the reseating plan within the next 30 days.
Meanwhile, Bills officials Monday continued to crow about the booming interest in new luxury boxes.
While the Bills still are contacting incumbent suite holders and haven't begun their public marketing blitz, 173 potential new customers have expressed a serious interest in obtaining luxury boxes, according to Vice President of Operations William G. Munson II.
"The (new) dugout suites are going to go fast," Littmann said.
The Bills continue to say they may build some of the new dugout luxury boxes one year early, before next season. But if they do, they will build them in the end zones and the corners, so that few season-ticket holders in the top six rows of the lower bowls would have to be displaced.
Munson also said the team's engineers are working closely with a Michigan company to put heated seats into the 6,800 new outdoor club sections.
"We feel very, very positive that we'll be coming up with a heated seat for our fans in the (outdoor) club seats," Munson said.