It’s more than a game, it’s an event.

By: Jill Tham

Remember the good old days when all that was being broadcasted on Kiss 98.5 was, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T Jim Kelly passes to Andre Reed”? Many fans from the Niagara Region certainly do, especially growing up in a town that borders Buffalo, New York, and the home of the mighty NFL team the Buffalo Bills whose fans are full of heart and soul.

Whether you are a football fan or not, you must know by now the many controversies that have surrounded the Buffalo Bills franchise over the last several months. One couldn’t seem to avoid hearing about the impending sale of the team, changes to ticket sales and pricing, and bold trades. In order to gain perspective on the questions that surround our much-loved team, REV publishing has taken to the streets in an attempt to get the opinion of those that matter the most – the fans.

Every football fan’s favourite pre-game ritual is tailgating, and no city does it quite like Orchard Park.  This season marks the first time in Bills recorded history that the parking lot at Ralph Wilson Stadium was sold out the day before the opening game. NFL fans will attest that the Bills’ parking lot camaraderie, complete with BBQ’s a plenty, is second to none. With the Peace Bridge jammed every Sunday during football season, it is clear to see that many Canadians flock south of the border for the welcoming community atmosphere. “Orchard Park has that old school NFL feel. It is more than a game, it is an event,” states Aaron Barchiesi, a long time Buffalo Bills fan and Niagara native who has been crossing the border for 15 years as a season ticket holder. “The tailgating is unlike anywhere else. If you are short on food or drinks, the guy next door will put some on the grill for you,” adds Barchiesi.

Part of that community feel definitely stems from the dynamic leadership of NFL pioneer Ralph Wilson, who died in March of 2014. “I believe Wilson loved the area and the people of Orchard Park. Even though it was less of a financial gain for him, he remained loyal and kept the Bills in Erie County,” says Barchiesi. Wilson’s death prompted his family to sell the franchise which left many fans in limbo over the fate of their beloved team.

A cast of diverse characters, so to speak, was in the media surrounding the recent sale of the Bills including Billionaire Howard Milstein, NHL Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, Reality TV mogul Donald Trump, adored former Bills Quarterback Jim Kelly and of course the rock star Bon Jovi. Along with Bon Jovi came the worry that his future plans for the team involved moving them to Toronto. It’s no wonder TSN, Yahoo Sports, and Twitter was buzzing with Bills updates. Fans breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced in early September that Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Bills Franchise for a reported 1.2 million dollars. When asked his pick of prospective bidders to own the Bills, Barchiesi replied, “Terry Pegula was my top choice. Since he purchased the Sabres in 2011, there have been many great changes to the downtown core and we are guaranteed the Bills will stay in the Buffalo area,” says Barchiesi.

With renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium completed for the preseason opener, the fresh new digs are sure to draw in old and new fans alike. Renovations have been constructed with the spectators in mind and include: an in-stadium lounge, improved gates for quicker entry, Wi-Fi throughout the stadium, a new team store, updated concessions and restrooms, and improvements to the training facility. Each of these improvements will add to the live game experience and help to entice people off their couches and into the stadium.

For fans living in Niagara or those visiting our beautiful area, the variable pricing model that the franchise recently moved to will certainly help make select games more affordable to fans. “I think the variable pricing model allows you to sell out a game because the face value is written on the ticket. It also allows people that can’t afford to go to a premium game an opportunity to go,” says Barchiesi.

You can guarantee it was silent in the Draft War Room, and in living rooms across Buffalo when Bills General Manager, Doug Whaley, shocked many with the deal he made with the Cleveland Browns to move up five spots in the pecking order and select wide receiver Sammy Watkins. To do so, Whaley also gave up Buffalo’s number nine pick this year and a first and fourth round pick in the 2015 draft. “The Bills currently hold the longest active playoff drought in the NFL, 14 years to be exact,” states Tim Bennett, another loyal Bills fan. “The push to make it to the playoffs is part in memory of Ralph Wilson,” adds Bennett.

In interviews since the draft, Whaley has spoken with confidence about his decision to aggressively seek out Watkins, and his daring move hasn’t fazed Barchiesi. “There is always a sense of urgency to win. The pick of Watkins is something they haven’t done in a long time. They obviously see a lot of talent in him,” says Barchiesi.

Fans like Bennett and Barchiesi are listening to the expert’s win-loss predictions of 9-7 and 10-6 for this season and forming their own opinions. “Exciting young players like Sammy Watkins give us a bit of hope,” states Bennett. “With quarterback EJ Manuel in his second year he should be more experienced and along with better defence and solid tandem running backs, Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, it should be a good season.”

Although a new owner has finally been selected, many questions surrounding the team still remain unanswered.  Will this young team of rookies be able to stay healthy and come together as a team? Will daring moves by Whaley pay off? However the chips may fall, one thing is certain for the 2014–2015 season, diehard Buffalo Bills fans here in Niagara Falls, ON, will stand by their side.