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Ranking NFL venues, the Stadium Journey way

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From time to time, you can find in your news feed some article trumping out “the best NFL stadium” or “Ranking the best and worst”. If you’re a stadium enthusiast, these will always make for interesting reads.

But in many cases, they’re also nonsense. And downright embarrassing at times, none more so than an article of this type that actually made it to the pages of USA Today this past October. Look closely and you’ll find that the misinformed writer assigned no actual scoring or metrics to his choices of what he deems to be the best, and the worst, stadium in the NFL, and everything in between. For example, NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, came in at 17th. Why, you wonder? The writer states, “My goodness is that a horrible name for a stadium, though I guess coming from a city that once had Enron Field, it could be worse.” That’s it. That’s all. So there you go.

Then there’s Stadium Journey.

If you haven’t heard of this media entity, you’re missing out. With a phalanx of writers scattered throughout North America and even beyond, the site is an aggregate of helpful and interesting information about sports venues everywhere. I have been affiliated with Stadium Journey for a number of years, keeping tabs on our sports palaces close to home, and from time to time, submitting profiles gleaned from our Ultimate Sports Road Trip travels.

stadiumjourney-193x67Stadium Journey has just released its annual rankings of the 31 NFL Stadiums and the experiences they offer. But unlike some of the write ups you stumble across, these rankings come to you thanks to the painstaking evaluation and review of writers from each of the cities that are profiled. Most of them have stellar credentials as accomplished sports travel enthusiasts, possess superior writing skills, and take the business of scoring and presenting their venue very seriously. Additionally, all the stadiums are re visited and re scored at the minimum of once every two years, so that information and data is fresh and relevant.

My contribution to this year’s roster of NFL venues and their scores is our very own Ralph Wilson Stadium. The longtime home of the Buffalo Bills landed at 19th of 31 once the scores were tallied. What places The Ralph at this level, being an aging though still (barely) functional stadium is the incredible tailgating scene, one of the absolute best in the NFL. Secondly, Buffalo’s unofficial anthem, the beloved Shout song, has endured for three decades and is as much a part of Buffalo as the chicken wing. What sunk Buffalo’s score is the location, sitting amidst 200 acres of asphalt in a manicured suburb, and the lack of access by anything other than private transportation.

And this year’s (returning) champ? Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium. And why not! With a superb location on the edge of a bustling downtown core, endless pre and post game food, drink and entertainment options, a building with a retractable roof and retractable end zone wall, abundant space for tailgating, and suitable for a myriad of events far beyond 10 days of football. Indianapolis’ gleaming playpen offers exactly the template for Buffalo’s future stadium plans, and they managed to fund and build it at a comparatively reasonable cost.

So there you have it. Click on the rankings, then click through to your favorite stadium and check out everything from the food to the tailgating to the prices to the extras. It’s a fun site to visit again and again.

Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell cover the NHL Buffalo Sabres and AAA Buffalo Bisons for Artvoice


Buffalo Bills… The Most Misbehaved Fans Ever?

BillsgamedayFrom time to time, dramatic stories emerge of some horrific happening surrounding a sporting event. At Dodger Stadium, a fan wearing San Francisco Giants gear is attacked and maimed. In Europe, soccer hooliganism is legendary and infamous, and even today, stadiums are designed to cordon off “away” fans from the home team supporters.

Yet right here, in Buffalo, the community known as “The City of Good Neighbors” is getting yet another black eye, as awful video taken in the parking lot of Ralph Wilson Stadium this past Sunday, has hit several sport media blogs and has gone viral.

The video depicts a fan, dressed in Bills garb, literally setting himself on fire, while nearby people, almost all male, all wearing Bills gear, and almost all holding a cup in their hands, presumably containing alcohol, cheer the nitwit on.

Thing is, this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Occurrences of fan misbehavior, with alcohol and even drug use fueling the bad acts, has become all too common on game day Sundays in Orchard Park. And it has even resulted in death.
In 2012, a drunken fan was ejected from Ralph Wilson Stadium at a night game in November. From the parking lot, he texted his brother and friends as to the post game meet up spot. Nobody heard from him again and his body was found the next day, face down in a shallow stream a half mile from the stadium.

Then in 2014, another fan decided to slide down the bannister along the upper deck of the sideline balcony. He slipped and fell more than 30 feet, severely injuring another fan who had the misfortune of being in exactly in the wrong spot when the individual hit the ground.

It gets worse. Throughout the season, the public has been deluged with stories in the sports media, most with accompanying videos, of the mayhem happening around Ralph Wilson Stadium; fans dropping off an RV and smashing a table. A couple having sex. Men binge drinking out of long funnels. A bat spin contest involving another drunk fan gone horribly wrong. And each time a video like this goes internet viral, it casts the entire community of Buffalo and Erie County in a horrible light on the national stage.

Are Buffalo fans the worst fans in the NFL when it comes to proper conduct? More on that in a bit.

But to understand the very DNA of the Bills stadium, one has to go all the way back to 1973, when a shiny new stadium then named Rich Stadium opened its doors for the very first time. From 1960 to 1972, the Bills played in a crumbling and decrepit stadium on the city’s east side. Back then, urban flight to the suburbs was in full gear, the neighborhood surrounding “The Old Rockpile” was not safe, especially with race riots going on during a very unstable societal era in our history. So when fans went out to Orchard Park for the very first time in 1973, it was a little slice of heaven.

There was a bright and new stadium in an upscale suburb, surrounded by hundreds of acres of asphalt, where people could come and bring their grills and coolers and safely tailgate and soak in the game day experience.

Tailgate they did, and then came the alcohol. Hard to believe in the era we live in today, that fans could actually carry coolers into the stadium back then. Beer, flasks, hard liquor. It all became an essential part of a day (or night) at a Bills game.

That first night game occurred in 1974, Buffalo’s debut on ABC’s Monday Night Football. The spectacle soon turned ugly, with one fan attempting to do a high wire act across the cable holding up an end zone net. There were multiple cases of fans running onto the field, and back then TV cameras lapped up such scenes, providing said hooligans their 30 seconds of fame. Dozens of fan fights broke in the stands, with green jacketed security people overwhelmed just trying to keep up. Buffalo’s national TV debut on ABC’s wildly popular Monday night show was an embarrassing one, with commentators “Dandy” Don Meredith and Howard Cosell rebuking the Buffalo fans for their poor conduct. The appalling scenes playing out that night even made it to a story in Sports Illustrated.

The in stadium violence went on an on. For decades. Bills management beefed up security, but did little to actually stem fan violence and stop miscreant fans from entering the stadium until just the past few years. Part of the charm of attending a Bills game was not only watching the action on the field, but the fights in the stands. You could set your watch to the inevitability that several melees would take place, especially in the end zone directly underneath the Bills scoreboard.

So back to the main question – are the Bills fans the worst in the NFL when it comes to fan conduct?

This is a very much subjective analysis, culled from our multiple visits to all 31 stadiums in the league, and additionally, games attended at almost 50 separate FBS division 1 college football venues. But based on those experiences, the answer has to be a definitive “Yes”.

Simply put, this sort of despicable behavior does not occur with regularity at any other NFL venue. Not in Philadelphia or Oakland, two cities most noted for their rabid fans and hostility to fans of visiting teams. At the Linc in Philly, tailgating involving open beverage containers and grills is limited to one section of the parking lots. Patrolling and controlling any bad behavior becomes much easier with a smaller footprint. Over in Oakland, several losing seasons has turned “The Black Hole” into a pretty docile place.

Looking at teams noted for their robust tailgate scene – in Green Bay, it seems like the entire state of Wisconsin descends on the small town on football Sundays. There is spirit and camaraderie in the air, fans and even kids are having fun, visitors are warmly welcomed. The entire streetscape feels more like an American Legion summer picnic. Same in Kansas City, where their newly refurbished stadium sits amidst a sea of parking, and the local folks are having fun in a well behaved manor.

Over at Houston’s NRG Stadium, the team actually has a kids area with bounce houses, other rides and a play area to make the tailgate scene family friendly. Guest relations associates with the Texans front office ride around the lots in golf carts, delivering prizes to the best decorated vehicles. Radio stations broadcast from outside the stadium gates. The entire set up is geared towards family fun.

In urban settings, the tailgating is more muted and subdued, just due to lack of large surface parking infrastructure. In places such as New Orleans, Seattle, Indianapolis and Detroit, people tailgate. But fans can also enjoy pre and post game at one of the many bars and bistros offering game day pub fare and drinks specials, or gather in a public area for live music and entertainment. At the Eastern Market near Detroit’s Ford Field, thousands of tailgaters gather amidst old historic buildings and warehouses. It’s an ocean of fun. Nobody is belly flopping off of roofs, nobody is engaging in a sexual act, nobody is imbibing from a funnel, and certainly, nobody is lighting himself on fire.
Well, it looks like Buffalo citizens have had enough, and are demanding that something be done. Social media threads, and responses to news articles about the situation, have been jam packed with people’s own stories of their experiences with violent and boorish behavior. The refrain is very similar – fans who gave up going to games years ago because a few miscreants ruined the experience for everybody, tales of drunkenness and vomit, many saying they would never expose children to such a spectacle.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has taken notice. Poloncarz was handily re-elected to his job this past November, and the county he runs is the owner of the stadium and landlord to the Bills. An avid writer on social media, Poloncarz yesterday commented, “Everyone has a role in making the ‪#‎Bills‬ game day experience a great one for all. We are better than what we’ve seen recently.” Speaking to the media, Poloncarz promised action, even if to bring the New York State Police in and to possibly step up patrolling of private lots. He minced no words, calling this sort of behavior “the laughing stock of idiocy”.

But will that be enough? Many of those in Buffalo who attend the games and enjoy tailgating in a respectful manor are now expressing fear that the team might take the extreme step of shutting down tailgating altogether. Many private lots surrounding the stadium do offer tailgating venues, however, and closing down tailgates on those private lands would require ordinance changes by the Orchard Park Town Board.

And there is some pushback. One obscure blogger penned “an open letter to Mark Poloncarz” defending the behavior and spectacle Buffalo Bills patrons all been witness to, and suggesting that Poloncarz come join his tailgate and have a beer. Incredibly, this knucklehead said that he doesn’t take his young children to the games, but if he did, and he happened across two people having sex right in front of him and his kids, he would simply turn the other way. Wow. Just wow.

In the end, there are no easy answers or solutions to this problem. Except that law enforcement and team management has to take more stringent matters to crack down on the small number of people who make things miserable for everybody. If it means expelling fans from stadium property, from doing random breathalyzers at the gates to anyone even carrying a container of alcohol, to doubling and even tripling the number of ushers and security at every section, then so be it.

The Buffalo Bills will be entering year four of a ten year lease with Erie County to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and there has already been significant discussion and community debate on the long term home of the Bills – whether it be a new stadium downtown or a complete overhaul of the current home, to another option elsewhere. As a community Buffalo has one generational opportunity to get this right. Poloncarz has taken a wise approach about moving slowly, mindful of the community’s financial situation and lack of political will to publicly fund an expensive new stadium. Bills owner Terry Pegula has indicated that at the appropriate time the organization will make plans for its future home, but there is no immediate rush to do so.

Whatever the outcome of this debate, implementing a place of safety, positive fan spirit, a collegial atmosphere, and a center of community pride, rather than community shame and embarrassment, now becomes part of this discussion. The people of Buffalo deserve better. They are a proud community and Buffalo and Erie County is a great place to call home, and it’s getting better by the day. And the overwhelming sentiment in Buffalo today amongst fans is that enough is enough. Bills Nation and Bills Mafia are ready to take back their game day. Stay tuned.

Artvoice sportswriters Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell have traveled to all 31 NFL stadiums as part of their Ultimate Sports Road Trip project which has taken them to hundreds of different sporting events at venues throughout North America and Europe. Find their web site at www.thesportsroadtrip.com


Can tailgating work at a downtown Buffalo stadium? Absolutely!

Back in August, we presented The Artvoice Stadium Plan, a bold blueprint for how a replacement stadium for the Buffalo Bills could be placed in the middle of the downtown core. The article received a lot of praise, a lot of critique, and generated a great deal of discussion throughout the community.

One of the biggest objections, if not the biggest, which detractors of a downtown stadium raise is the issue of the tailgating. Since Ralph Wilson Stadium opened its doors in 1973, a suburban venue surrounded with 17,000 parking spaces and 200 acres of asphalt, the robust tailgating tradition has been synonymous with Buffalo Bills football. Along with such teams as Green Bay, Houston and Kansas City, Buffalo fans rank amongst the elite in the NFL when it comes to throwing a tailgate party.

What would happen to tailgating if the Buffalo Bills relocated to a downtown location, sited amidst a dense neighborhood of existing structures and where vast seas of open parking are at a premium.

The answer. Nothing bad. To see how things could work, perhaps Detroit could be looked at as a template.
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In 2002, the Detroit Lions left their old stadium, the Pontiac Silverdome, for a glitzy new stadium located right in the middle of downtown Detroit and directly adjacent to a newly invigorated Greektown Historic District. Like us here in Orchard Park, the Silverdome was located in the exurbs, and surrounded by little more than huge acreage of open parking lots. People in Detroit loved to tailgate, and lamented the lack of suitable tailgate venues upon the move downtown.
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The team responded by setting up a designated “tailgate lot”, but it was too far, too small, and well off the beaten path.

But tailgating came back to Detroit, with a vengeance, and grew organically in creative ways as people sought venues and settings to enjoy football gamedays. And eventually, Detroit’s Eastern Market became tailgate central. On any football Sunday, the neighborhood comes alive as thousands upon thousands of fans name the streets and the neighborhood to engage in their football pastime.
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During the week, the Eastern Market is the hub of farmers produce and other food items sold in kiosks and stands throughout a six block area. The neighborhood looks much like Buffalo’s own Cobblestone District, with many post industrial structures, some warehouses, a bit of new infill, loading docks, a few quaint shops and restaurants, and while many of the buildings bear a strong architectural and historical heritage, others are way past their prime dreck.

Here is a map of the Eastern Market Tailgate, just a long touchdown pass away from the front doors of Ford Field in Detroit

Here is a map of the Eastern Market Tailgate, just a long touchdown pass away from the front doors of Ford Field in Detroit


On game day, everything changes. Fans descend by the thousands with their cars, RV’s and campers. Radio stations and other media outlets set up their kiosks, food trucks abound, stages with live music are in abundance, the streets come alive and people fill every nook and cranny in a big community celebration.

The scene is not unlike that of game day surrounding Ralph Wilson Stadium, except that at the Ralph the scene is set in massive open lots, while in Detroit the same scene unfolds amidst a multi block setting of industrial and commercial buildings.
Hans Steiniger is a passionate Buffalo Bills fans now living in suburban Detroit, and he has attended football games at all 31 NFL venues as well as many college football games. He chronicles his journey at his web site, Questfor31.com Hans was on hand this past Sunday at the Eastern Market Tailgate, dressed in Bills attire while holding court with his many Detroit friends, and marveled at how the Detroit tailgate scene has evolved. “Water always finds its level,” explained Hans. When the Lions moved here things were kind of dead, but over time it picked up here, and what you see here today is one of the coolest NFL tailgate scenes anywhere, right here in Motown.

Could tailgating work at a downtown Buffalo location? “For sure,” says Hans. “Buffalo people have to get out of that mindset that you need big oceans of asphalt to have proper tailgating. Anyplace where you can set up a grill and a canopy and share the experience with others becomes a proper tailgate venue. A little out of the box thinking is all you need. Buffalo is party city and that party will move from Ralph Wilson Stadium to a downtown location with no problem.”
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So imagine if you will that some incarnation of the Artvoice Stadium Plan comes to fruition come 2021 or so, and community sentiment right now certainly seems to favor that if a new stadium is to become a reality, that it be located in Buffalo and preferably downtown.

Would it be feasible that the Ohio Street corridor, Riverfest Park and Father Conway Park in the Old First Ward would come alive with tailgate revelers? Would properties along South Park, and Perry Street, and Scott Street, and Exchange Street, be lined with cars and campers and these corridors become a massive street party on game day? Could you see the Cobblestone District with music stages and food truck courts and vendors hawking their wares? Would Canalside and the soon to be opened HarborCenter become energetic centers of activity?

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The answer. Absolutely.

The photos contained in this article were taken this past Sunday prior to the Buffalo Bills vs Detroit Lions game in Detroit by Artvoice sports columnists Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell. Follow on twitter @akulykUSRT and @pfarrellUSRT


Shiny new NFL stadiums in peer cities

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It’s been almost a year now since the Greater Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Complex unveiled their vision for a new stadium which would be largely privately financed and be situated smack dab on the lake’s edge in Buffalo’s Outer Harbor.

Since that time, Erie County, the State and the Buffalo Bills partnered up and got a new lease done, which will assure that the team stays here for at least 7 and up to 10 years. Ralph Wilson Stadium will be seeing all sorts of upgrades during the coming offseason, which fans will get to experience come 2014. It comes with a hefty price tag, but it also buys this community time in term of coming up with a long term plan to keep the Buffalo Bills here in perpetuity.

Nicholas Strascick and George Hasiotis, the principals behind the GBSEC, deserve every bit of gratitude and plaudits from the stakeholders and citizens of this area for moving this debate forward. They invested substantial sums to retain a world class architect (HKS Sports) and come up with a preliminary design. They have lobbied mightily at all levels of government to try and secure a time sensitive land option on the Outer Harbor property. And if the vision and the proposed site as depicted eventually falls by the wayside, the people in this community can do the proper due diligence to find the appropriate alternative.

In three other NFL markets, either construction and/or plans are proceeding nicely for new stadiums which will further raise the bar on architecture and design, fan amenities, technology and functionality. Here is the rundown:

SAN FRANCISCO
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Construction is proceeding at a brisk pace on Levi’s Stadium, the new home for the San Francisco 49ers, to replace the aging and generally horrible Candlestick Park, one of oldest and most decrepit stadiums in the league. Set to open in 2014, this building is situated 38.3 miles from San Francisco and actually closer to San Jose, giving this franchise a true regional footprint. It will be the home venue for Super Bowl L (that’s “50”) in 2016.

MINNESOTA
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Ground is being broken for a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis, with the opening set in time for the 2016 NFL season. So where will this facility be located? Right where their current stadium, Mall of America Field (nee Metrodome), is now. In fact, some site work will get underway shortly, and as soon as the current season is concluded, the current stadium will be demolished, and the Vikings will spend two seasons playing at TCF Bank Field on the University of Minnesota campus while their new playpen goes up.

ATLANTA
Just this past week the Atlanta Falcons unveiled new renderings and design concepts for a new stadium to replace the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta.

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The Falcons also plan to build their new facility on the footprint of the current Georgia Dome, which would be razed to make room for the new stadium. They plan to raise the bar with electronics and LED technology to dazzle the senses, including a massive “halo” 360 degree video board crowning the circular retractable roof opening, as well as a football field length HD board running along the main concourses. If all goes to plan, their new stadium will open in time for the 2017 NFL season.

For sake of time comparisons here, both Mall of America Field opened in 1982 and the Georgia Dome opened in 1993, while Buffalo rolled out what was then named Rich Stadium in 1973. When San Francisco opens their new field next season, that will leave Buffalo and Oakland as having the two oldest stadiums in the National Football League.

Let the community debate continue.


Pontiac Michigan’s Silverdome Sold for Pennies

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In Pontiac Michigan the Detroit Lions used to play in the Silverdome, which was built at a cost $55.7 million. The stadium was just sold for $583,000 along with a 125 acres of land. Detroit is also selling off a lot of other public property that has been draining taxpayers. Should Buffalo think about putting Ralph Wilson Stadium on the block? For the full story read this piece in the Washington Post.