A recent report gave some potential insight into the future home of the Buffalo Bills. While already contentious, the non-domed option being proposed in Orchard Park has one fact that seems to be causing a ton of ire; namely the reduction in stadium size to 60,000 seats, a drop of approximately 12.000. While most reactions place this particular porridge as too cold, the data suggests it might be juuuuuust right.
Let’s talk money
Before I begin let’s discuss the elephant (papa bear?) in the room. I don’t think for a second that the Pegulas are doing things solely out of the goodness of their hearts. In fact, I’d be willing to bet a small sum (very small, I’m broke) that whatever plans they put forward will be to their advantage financially.
Things like PSLs and ticket increases, etc. are not off the table, and reducing the supply of a product that’s in demand is absolutely one way to try to drive up ticket prices. On the other hand, let’s talk suites.
The leaked proposal cites 60 suites which sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? It’s not. Based on available information, it’d be cutting the current amount almost precisely in half. I bring this up for two reasons. First, we don’t have any direct evidence on whether or not the new stadium will be catering to the “corporate elite” as I’ve seen people voice fears on. The indirect evidence of reducing suite capacity by roughly half suggests the opposite. Second, it’s notable that the overall capacity is a reduction of about 17%. While it’s hard to know the exact number of seats that would shift away from suites, an approximate drop by 50% means the super-premium experience is taking a disproportionately large hit.
Average butts in seats
The Bills have the most rabid fanbase in sports and the stadium is always sold out! Eh...no. Let’s look at recent history. The most current season that wasn’t hammered by a pandemic was 2019. The Bills averaged just shy of 69,000 fans per game. Which is pretty great for a 72k capacity stadium. It was 96% in fact, stacking up very well against the rest of the league.
What about 2018? This was McDermott’s second year and the Bills were just coming off their first playoff experience in... Gee, I think it was at least a couple years. They had just drafted Josh Allen. Optimism was running rampant. It wasn’t reflected in attendance. At 91% capacity for the year, the Bills averaged just shy of 65k butts in seats on average.
Check out the sortable table below, which has information from 1992 through now (thank you pro-football-reference.com. You’ll see that there’s a ton of variability year to year. While the mean average attendance hasn’t dipped below 60k in the span we have records for, you will see years that fell off a cliff.
The years 2011, 2001, and 2010 were just a stone’s throw away from the 60k mark (all under 64k). The 2012 and 2018 seasons were both under 65k. And the stadium has been renovated lots of times, usually removing seats. If we go by capacity, there are seven seasons out of 28 (that’s 25%) that fell under 90% capacity. Three more seasons came in at 91% capacity.
Is weather a factor?
I don’t have this in the chart, but you can start with the 1992 season here and follow along on PFR if you’d like. There’s a lot of years to sort through but a quick glance makes it seem like the logical thought process is correct. A lot fewer fans show up when the weather turns to crap.
Week 17 in ‘93 saw attendance about 10k less than capacity. In a Super Bowl year! In 1994 the once perennial contender fell out of the playoff race. As a result their second-to-last home game was shy 14k people. And the last home game had a scant 56k in the stands, or about 24k short of full. The following year the Bills bounced back a bit. After winning ten games, the Bills closed at home against the Oilers and drew a crowd of 45,253 fans. Woof.
Some years don’t seem to fall prey to weather issues. In 2019 attendance remained high all year. In 2018, over 67k fans saw the Bills destroy the Dolphins despite only five other wins that year. Which is kind of weird considering the three home games before that all fell under the 60k mark. Ultimately weather isn’t absolute, but it does seem to play a big part.
Why 60,000 though?
The lowest attendance in the span we have information for was the 2011 season where 62,694 fans piled in on average. That’s still 5% higher than the proposed 60k stadium. Below I’ll make a better (longer) case for it, but it’s pretty straightforward for a “why.” At 60k, Buffalo is large enough to accommodate their entire hardcore fan base AND drastically decreases the odds of having empty seats.
The most important thing to note is that while ordinarily there’s no issue reaching close to the 72k mark (or 80k prior to that), dipping below 60k is not that rare. In the case of winter games, attendance dips are actually fairly common. I’d need to crunch way more numbers to pinpoint this precisely but the work I’ve already put in leads me to believe that you can count on 50k rabid fans showing up no matter what. This is the hardcore fan base.
Beyond that 50k is where things can become volatile. There are plenty of other fans that will show up if the conditions are right, making them literally fair weather fans. Go ahead and scan through the years. A good guess puts this number at about 10k with some variability. Note; the Super Bills era seems to have a higher number of “hardcore” fans but a seemingly similar number of “fair weather fans.”
Now before we reach the conclusion that success yields higher turnouts remember that The Comeback wasn’t televised because the game didn’t sell out. It was about 5k fans short. Even the good years had lean days. Further, recent years suggest the capacity reductions that have already occurred weren’t unwise. With the stadium in the 70k range the Bills have only “sold out” the entire season once in 2003. Effectively at least, with 99% capacity per records. Feel free to play with the table below, there’s good evidence to suggest the overall crowd size has been going down.
Despite that, a drop to 60k does mean that some fans are likely to be cut out so let’s return to that notion. As noted, there’s a disproportionate amount of seats being cut from the suites, meaning that despite a 17% reduction overall it’ll be less than that in the “Regular Joe” seats. And again, the most likely portion of the fan base that gets dropped are the fair weather fans which the data suggests exist in large numbers.
What makes 60k a “Goldilocks” number though?
Don’t misconstrue my intent. I’m not trying to say everyone will be happy. More than likely ticket sales will go up. Mirroring Green Bay’s average price for instance, Bills fans could expect to pay $40 more per game. This would still be considered a bargain by league standards. The best information available has the current ticket sales accounting for just a bit under $6 million per game. At Green Bay pricing with 60k fans that’d change to a bit over $7 million. While these are guesstimates, what I’m driving at is that the Pegulas won’t likely be hurting here. And from their point of view (staffing, stocking, etc), having stability in attendance is a good thing.
It’s not a Goldilocks number just for the Pegulas though. For the hardcore fans there isn’t much to lose. There’s plenty of seats to accommodate them. Additionally, whether it’s for a game or three (2018) or an entire season (1997) we know there will be lean times. They’re coming. They always have. They always will.
At 60k you drastically reduce the chance of seeing those expanses of empty seats. You no longer need 20k fair weather fans to fill the stadium. For the hardcore group that’s there no matter what it’s a better experience to look around and see nothing but Bills fans. Improvements such as overhangs to reduce the elements and modernized facilities should all enhance the experience to some degree as well.
Some fans will lose out. However, it’ll be fewer than the raw numbers suggest. And the losses will be mostly from the ranks of fans that were less committed in the first place. It’s not guaranteed, but this porridge might be just right.
Now here’s the table I promised:
Stadium attendance 1992 to present