NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell may want a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, but in some respects, they already have one.
When fans arrive at Ralph Wilson Stadium for the team’s pre-season game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Aug. 23 – and even more so at the regular season home opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 14 – they will see what $130 million in renovations will buy.
That money – $90 million of it from the state and county – aims to eliminate many of the 41-year-old stadium’s more annoying and antiquated features.
Long lines at the gates and crowding in the concourses should be nothing but J.P. Losman-like memories. Clerks at concession stands will be able to fill orders and process credit cards without scrambling behind the line of scrimmage, so to speak.
And – finally! – the game’s radio broadcasts will be piped into every bathroom.
This being the modern NFL, there will be more opportunities for the Bills to pull more money out of your pockets, too. The new team store is four times bigger than the old one. There’s a huge new Coors Light Sports Bar in the east end zone and more concessions everywhere. You can even enjoy a real Buffalo meal – Duff’s wings, some La Nova pizza and a Tim Hortons doughnut or three – without leaving the stadium.
To hear Marc Honan, the Bills’ chief marketing officer, tell it, it’s just what you all wanted.
“A big part of this renovation has really been designed by the fans, through our research and the surveys we’ve done,” Honan said. “We tried to give them what they asked for.”
Still, the renovated stadium in Orchard Park is most decidedly not what the NFL appears to be longing for: a new football palace that’s both a comfortable place to watch a game and a multi-purpose, year-round money maker.
Instead, the new Ralph is a bit like a restored classic car.
Fans will notice some changes from the moment they approach the stadium.
Populous – the sports architecture firm that designed the improvements – consolidated the nine gates into six “Super Gates,” turning the underutilized Gate One into the media and staff entrance and closing off the equally underused Gates Eight and Nine. The Super Gates are far larger than the old entryways, and where there used to be 167 points of entry, now there are 220.
Thanks to the team’s tailgating culture, “we’ve had 35,000 fans trying to get through the gates between 12:30 and 1 p.m.,” Honan said. “It wasn’t orderly. People felt cramped. But the Super Gates will allow people to pass through in a much more orderly fashion.”
What’s more, the designers moved the gates outward from the stadium, creating a 100,000-square-foot buffer zone filled with landscaping, concessions and walkways designed to lead people more easily to their seats.
“It’s kind of a second concourse outside the stadium,” said Kelly Kerns, the principal at Populous who led the design work.
Those outside walkways are all part of a consistent theme throughout the stadium, where designers took every step they could within their budget to make it easier to get around.
“That was part of our goal, to handle some of these issues involving ingress and egress,” said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
For example, the cramped “switchback stairs” that linked the stadium’s levels, which could have been popular only with personal injury lawyers, are gone, replaced by two “monumental staircases” at the 50-yard line on both sides of the stadium. In addition to being easier to navigate, the wide staircases also will allow much more natural light to enter the center of the concourses, Honan noted.
The changes in the concourses were made with the same goal in mind. “We designed everything with easy access, all to relieve pressure on the concourses,” Honan said.
For example, the portable concessions stands, which blocked the walkways and caused congestion and annoyance, have been pushed back out of the main concourses. Now they will be in new cubbyholes tucked under the stands on the field side of the concourses.
On the 300 level, there are huge new concessions and restroom areas in each of the stadium’s four corners, again to alleviate congestion in the corridors.
Beyond the east end zone, there’s a huge new Coors Light Sports Bar with concessions areas, and beyond the west end zone is the 8,000-foot Bills Store facing Abbott Road, which will be open year-round.
The existing concessions areas inside the stadium will be new, too. Most have gone from five points of sale each to eight, and every one will have credit card readers to speed up transactions.
Add it all up, and a visit to a Bills game this year ought to entail far less crowding and far less waiting than in the past.
“It’s going to be a noticeable improvement,” Kerns said, noting that the lack of crowding in the concourses could lead to better behavior among fans.
When the walkways and concessions are less crowded, “the levels of temper and anxiety go down,” he said.
All will feature the latest digital technology, as will the new high-definition televisions that will allow fans to keep track of the action while in the corridors or at the concessions stands.
Even going to the restroom should be a more pleasant experience. The radio broadcast of the game will be played in all the restrooms, and the overall number of toilet fixtures has been increased by 8.7 percent.
But in many men’s rooms, the urinal troughs – long a terror to the shy and a hazard to those neighboring the unsteady – remain.
Thankfully, it will be easier to find your seat after a beer and a restroom visit, too, thanks to the improved signage. The entire Ralph is now color-coded, with red signage on the south side of the stadium and blue signage on the north, and a new black motif that serves at the backdrop for the blue and red charging bison logo.
All the improvements were designed with the fans in mind, Honan said, noting that it’s a very different renovation than the one that largely expanded the Ralph’s luxury facilities in the late 1990s. But there are plenty of improvements that the fans won’t see, such as new cable for television broadcasts, a new press box in the end zone and new weight facilities for the players.
Getting all that work completed on time was no easy task, though, said Dar Almeter, president of LP Ciminelli Construction Corp., the project’s main contractor.
“We had one of the worst winters and not a great spring and a very wet summer,” Almeter noted. “And we had a very compressed schedule of 7ø months to do the work. So we were really up against it at some points.”
Despite all the changes, much remains the same. Fans will find that the Ralph’s seating bowl, one of the more intimate in the NFL, is virtually unchanged.
And missing will be some of the amenities common to new NFL stadiums: vast new concourses, fancy restaurants and conference facilities. Working on a tight budget, the team, Populous and Ciminelli instead focused on more basic improvements.
Of course, with Goodell saying that the Bills need a new facility to thrive in Buffalo, it’s possible that the team and its fans will enjoy all those fancy amenities someday.
But for the time being, those involved in reinventing the Ralph say they’re sure that fans will be thrilled when they visit.