Ralph Wilson Stadium (photo credit)
With the news from South Florida last week that Dolphin Stadium will be re-named "Land Shark Stadium" to promote their new minority owner, Jimmy Buffet, I got to thinking about the name of Ralph Wilson Stadium. For the record, I have been a strong proponent of Ralph Wilson and his commitment to keeping the team here in Buffalo.
As much as I respect Wilson, something about the fact that the stadium where the Bills play is named for him and doesn't bring in money rubs me the wrong way. It's not like Erie County or the Bills couldn't use the money. Sure, it's cool that our stadium isn't named after some website or Billy Fuccillo, but the Bills are constantly saying they can't compete financially with other teams, and the naming rights to the stadium are a legitimate and potentially significant source of revenue.
Who owns the stadium?
Let me start by saying that Erie County owns Ralph Wilson Stadium and it's leased to the Buffalo Bills. According to the New York Times the lease runs from 1998 through 2012 and is estimated to total over $100M. According to Business First Magazine, the lease essentially became a year-to-year agreement beginning in 2003 after five years of the deal. "The team, if it wishes, can trigger an escape clause after any of the next nine seasons, instantly voiding the rest of the agreement." That is disheartening, but that's a different conversation altogether.
After flirting with a move to Seattle, the Bills left outdated and smallish War Memorial Stadium (a.k.a. "The Rockpile") in downtown Buffalo, secured some local bonds, and decided to relocate to Orchard Park, a short drive from Buffalo. Many of us remember watching games played by the Bills at Rich Stadium. Rich Products, a Buffalo-based food service company, signed a 25-year lease when the stadium opened in 1972 for $1.5 million, becoming an early leader in stadium naming deals. Following the expiration of that deal in 1998, a new deal was declined by Rich due to the enormous escalation in cost. The stadium was briefly named Bills Stadium at this time before officially being renamed in honor of the Bills' founder.
Other stadiums without naming rights
Several other NFL teams do not have naming rights on their stadiums. Cleveland Browns Stadium, Giants Stadium, Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, Oakland Coliseum, Arrowhead Stadium, Paul Brown Stadium (named for the founder of the Bengals), Lambeau Field, the Georgia Dome, the Metrodome, Soldier Field, the Superdome, and Texas Stadium are all examples - though Texas Stadium and Giants Stadium are being replaced with new stadiums expected to garner very large naming fees. Small market teams like the Bengals and Jaguars could benefit from the extra money brought in by this type of deal as well. Teams like the Bears can afford, literally, to keep their traditional stadium name if they prefer, but teams like the Bills shouldn't.
Several new stadiums have been built and the naming rights to those facilities have brought in huge dollar figures. Recently, the New York Mets garnered a 20-year, $400M deal from Citi Bank to name their brand new stadium Citi Field - even though they just received a government bailout. The Arizona Cardinals approached officials at the University of Phoenix, and now they sponsor the Cardinals' stadium for $154.5M over 20 years. Even the smaller market Indianapolis Colts received $122M over 20 years for the naming rights to their new stadium from Lucas Oil just a year ago with the economy in the middle of a downward slide.
A deal similar in scope to these is not going to be the difference between keeping the team in Buffalo for the long haul, but like the Bills in Toronto Series, it would be another way to bring in money to offset costs. It's not chump change, averaging over $6M a year, but it is certainly enough to pay some salaries. This could be the difference between signing an average player and signing the best player in free agency. This is the difference between addressing one need and two.
Of course, we as fans could also sponsor the name. Everybody send me 20 bucks and I'll put in a bid. We can call it Buffalo Rumblings Stadium. How's that for advertising?