Buffalo, The Bills, and Good Neighbors
On Saturday, the Buffalo Bills clinched their first AFC East title in 25 years. After famously reaching, and losing, four straight Super Bowls between 1990 and 1993, the Bills last made the playoffs in 1995, when their Wild Card win over the Dolphins was the team’s last playoff win.
While the Bills can celebrate their long-overdue AFC East championship, even more, worthy of celebration are the prospects of not only winning playoff games again but perhaps even accomplishing that which the teams of the early 90s failed to do; win the first-ever Super Bowl for the franchise since the AFL/NFL merger. The Bills, led by one of the best young quarterbacks in the game, Josh Allen, have an exciting future, both in the weeks and years to come.
The problem? Nobody’s there to see it. In the stands, that is.
In compliance with State and local pandemic guidelines issued in June, the Bills announced that no fans would be allowed to attend either of the first two home games. The guidelines remain in place to date, through 7 home games. Perhaps in foreshadowing what was to come, in July, New Era Cap Company, the sponsor of the Bills’ New Era Field since 2016, announced it would be laying off 117 employees in the company’s Buffalo hub. New Era’s financial struggles coincided with the request for an early release from its naming rights and sponsorship deal with the Bills. First an empty stadium, and now a sponsor-less stadium.
In addition to ongoing restrictions on the grounds of what is now Bills Stadium, in parallel have been operating restrictions for the several private parking lots within walking distance of the stadium. As long as no fans are welcome at home games (including the stadium parking lots), in anticipation of fans planning to tailgate off-site, the Erie County Department of Health has threatened fines and potential shutdown for any private lot owner failing to comply. No tailgating means the quashing of a legendary part of the fan experience in Buffalo, led by the Bills Mafia.
The “Bills Mafia,” as the team’s loyal and passionate fan base has become known over the last decade, has engendered a family-like, true community atmosphere surrounding the Bills, Buffalo, and beyond, as evidenced by the official Twitter account (@BuffaloFAMbase) and its 120,000 followers. While prior Bills ownership shied away from any official connection between the organization and the phrase “Bills Mafia,” current ownership has grown to appreciate it to the point of filing an application, this past October, to trademark what has become the fan base’s adopted nickname.
The COVID-19 pandemic guidelines have, of course, not only impacted the fans’ experience, but have dramatically affected the revenue of local businesses relying upon sales created by the customary excitement surrounding the Bills. According to a press release from the NY State Department of Labor on December 17th, private sector jobs totals are down by 40,000 in the Buffalo area year over year, between November of 2019 and November of 2020. Perhaps among those businesses struggling most are those in the restaurant, bar, and food service industry. In addition to lost revenue from everyday business, with restrictions in place, these Buffalo area establishments are missing out on the reliably high revenue generated throughout every Bills' game day.
“The entire restaurant ecosystem faces a serious long-term threat, from our struggling vendors like farms, breweries, and distributors, to the decimated tourism sector, to the closed or barely operating restaurants themselves,” said Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York Restaurant Association, in a letter to Governor Cuomo on December 10, 2020. “A threat to our industry also threatens what’s most important – our employees, customers, neighborhoods, and communities, who risk losing places to gather, share, and celebrate over food and drink.”
Keeping Buffalo restaurants and other small businesses afloat, in addition to the Erie County Back to Business relief program – providing $20 million in grants offering direct financial assistance to qualifying Erie-County based small businesses – the “City of Good Neighbors,” as Buffalo is known, has lent a helping hand to its struggling small businesses.
Buffalo business owner, Paul Santora of Santora’s Pizza Pub & Grill, founded a non-profit called Revive WNY Restaurants (revivewnyrestaurants.org), launching in January, which will take corporate sponsor and independent dollars to fund a marketing campaign for struggling restaurants in Western New York.
Bills cornerback, Josh Norman, and his foundation, Starz24 (starz24.org), partnered with the City of Buffalo in a campaign called “Buffalo Business Blitz,” to raise money for small businesses impacted by COVID-19 restrictions this holiday season.
As for the wish that fans be allowed to attend home playoff games, at his Friday press conference, Governor Cuomo offered some hope, stating, “If we’re in the playoffs, if the infection rate is under control and we come up with a smart, science-based way to do it, I would be all in favor. I would love nothing more on a personal level than to see Buffalonians enjoy this moment.”
As former Bills Hall of Fame coach, Marv Levy, said at the press conference announcing his retirement, “The future beckons and I look forward to it with anticipation and excitement.” The anticipation and excitement of the Bills’ success on the field – especially with fans gathering, in the stands, and elsewhere – with some help from good neighbors, can kickstart Buffalo’s economy in 2021.