Since stadium drama is the flavor of the week, this history lesson takes us to a time that’s quickly become all too familiar. The creation of Rich Stadium (now Highmark Stadium) was something of a nightmare for all parties involved. We could learn a lot about the current situation dominating the Bills fanbase by looking back at it. Slap on your best Bills gear and step into the time machine as I take you back to the Stone Age. We’re visiting “The Rockpile”.
The Need For New
It was no secret that the Bills needed a new stadium. Everyone was well aware War Memorial Stadium was a dilapidated heap coming apart at the seams when the the upstart Bills came to town in 1960. However, the Bills needed a home and it was the best they had available. Once the team settled into “The Queen City” and the AFL cemented itself as a league, talks turned to finding a more permanent home. The capacity of War Memorial Stadium was well under NFL standards, at just over 46,000 seats. It was even small for the upstart AFL. By the time of the merger, it had become clear that the Bills would need a new house if they were to stay in Buffalo. The topic became all the rage as of 1970.
There was, unfortunately, a significant wrench thrown into the works. Originally, Ralph Wilson didn’t intend to put his new team in Buffalo. Before the AFL was ever founded, Ralph Wilson wanted an NFL franchise in Miami. When Lamar Hunt gave him the opportunity to own an AFL team, Buffalo was his second choice. He’d never truly settled into the city. If not for Patrick J. McGroder, he might never have agreed to go to Buffalo in the first place.
The AFL teams were still leagues behind the NFL teams they played alongside. Wilson felt that a different market could have made them more successful both as competitors and as a business. The relocation rumors that emerged weren’t unfounded. Wilson considered Tampa, Seattle, and other possible destinations. Fortunately for Bills fans, the city and team came to an agreement for a new stadium. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay that way.
The Lancaster Project
The original project called for a domed stadium in Lancaster, NY. It was well on it’s way to becoming reality before all parties involved tore themselves apart. Ralph Wilson didn’t want his team there; the politicians didn’t want them to play anywhere else; and locals were completely divided on the matter. Some residents would have lost their homes to make the build happen, whereas others promised “to build the biggest hot-dog stand you ever saw”, and ultimately it was this division and inability to agree on any major issue that pushed the Bills back towards Orchard Park.
The project was approved initially as part of a failed bid for Major League Baseball team, and the assumption was that it would host both franchises. Much of the funding was pulled after the MLB rejected the bid. The final nail in the coffin was a council decision that the stadium would be too close to Lancaster High School. And, with the flick of a pen, it was dead.
Settling the Matter
Wilson may have been a little too happy to see the original deal fall through. Not only did he not want a domed stadium, it gave him the opportunity to take a better look at relocation. As a result, New York State and Erie County agreed to pay double their previously agreed-upon percentage to ensure both the swift erection of the stadium and the long-term residency of the Buffalo Bills. The groundbreaking ceremony took place on April 4th, 1972 in Orchard Park, New York. Both Ralph Wilson and Erie Council Chairman Richard J. Keane held the shovel.
The Business Of Branding
However, the fight was not yet done. The stadium may have been on it’s way, but it still needed a name. As part of the stadium agreement, the team was required to sell the naming rights to the building. It wasn’t the first time an NFL team had sold naming rights, but it was far from a common practice. Once again, Wilson strictly opposed to it. The decision wouldn’t be his to make, despite his best efforts, as finding an outside sponsor became the responsibility of Buffalo’s Chamber of Commerce. Their search came up empty.
Hearing of this, Robert Rich Sr. of Rich Products offered $1 million for a 10-year naming rights deal, then changed it to a $1.5 million over 25 years. Despite a qualifying offer from Wilson himself to call the stadium “Buffalo Bills Stadium”, Erie Country voted in favor of Rich, though they insisted on the name “Rich Stadium” over the originally suggested “Coffee Rich Park”. Ralph was having none of it.
A “Rich” History
Wilson proceeded to be the biggest thorn in the side of Rich Products that he could plausibly be. He loathed the name. He thought it made his team the laughing stock of the NFL and took every opportunity to shed it where possible. The county had to file a restraining order against the Bills organization when workers were found stealing “Rich Stadium” signs and disposing of them in the night. Gameday programs and similar promotional material instead referred to the building as “the new stadium” or by it’s street address, “One Bills Drive”. The second of these titles sticks to this day, but, understandably, Rich had a problem with this.
After 10 years of lawsuits, grievances, and other legal action, Wilson and his NFL team finally used the name. When the naming rights deal finally expired, Wilson started the bidding war unreasonably high to ensure Rich Products wouldn’t get the chance to keep it. The fight was over, and no-one had won in a real sense. If anything, Ralph got the last laugh. Rich Stadium would be renamed Ralph Wilson Stadium in his honor. He wouldn’t try and steal the sign for that arena, that much was for certain.