Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
It took lawyers and 10 years of arguing before the Buffalo Bills finally acknowledged the frozen food company sponsoring their home.
Eager to move out of their crumbling confines, the Buffalo Bills spent much of the 1960s off the field demanding a new, publicly-financed stadium. They were finally granted one in 1972, but the deal came with a condition: it would be named after a non-dairy coffee creamer.
Long before Levi’s, M&T Bank, and FirstEnergy stadiums, there was Rich Stadium, one of the very first NFL facilities to sell its naming rights. Though naming rights are taken for granted as part of any stadium financing package today, it took multiple lawsuits before Bills ownership finally acknowledged the building’s legal name.
The Bills called War Memorial Stadium home from 1960-1972. The stadium was located in the city’s deeply segregated east side, and its other tenant—the minor league baseball Bisons—relocated their weeknight home games to Niagara Falls after nearby riots in June 1967 scared fans away in droves. Two years later, the WPA-era facility was described by Sports Illustrated as having looked “as if whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines.”
But above all other flaws, War Memorial Stadium’s seating capacity (46,500) was about to jeopardize Buffalo’s place in pro football. The American Football League, to which the Bills belonged, had agreed in 1966 to merge with the NFL at the start of the 1970 season. The deal stipulated that each franchise play in a stadium with a seating capacity of at least 50,000.
Buffalo was pushing for a Major League Baseball expansion franchise at the time, leading the Erie County legislature to vote 19-1 in favor of a $50 million bond for a multi-sport dome. But after the MLB rejected Buffalo’s bid in 1968, the county pulled back its commitment to the project. With no backup plan from the county, Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr., proceeded to flirt with Seattle, Memphis, and Tampa for relocation.
The county finally agreed to build an open-air suburban stadium in 1972 for half the cost of a dome. The Bills signed away the naming rights to the new $23.5 million stadium, presumably under the impression it had no value.
Enter a local frozen food company.
Robert E. Rich, Sr. created a non-dairy whip after learning about product substitution during World War II. Made out of soybeans, it was cheaper and lasted longer than traditional whipped cream. His company, Rich Products, soon expanded its frozen food portfolio, and in 1961 (one year after the Bills’ inaugural season) debuted a non-dairy creamer, “Coffee Rich.”
As recalled by Rich Sr.’s son, Bob Rich Jr. in his 2011 autobiography, Buffalo’s chamber of commerce came up empty on a search for a corporate sponsorship for the new Bills stadium. Upon hearing about the failed campaign, Rich Sr. decided to offer $1 million over 10 years in exchange for the facility being called “Coffee Rich Park.”
Naming a stadium after a company that didn’t also own the team that played inside it was a new frontier. In baseball, there was Wrigley (gum), Fenway (real estate) and Busch (beer), but the brands reflected either the neighborhood name (in the case of Fenway) or the owner’s last name.
One year prior to Rich Sr.’s offer, the New England Patriots moved into brand new “Schaefer Stadium.” The team had no public money to work with on their new stadium, but still managed to string together a no-frills facility for only $6.7 million ($41.5 after inflation). Part of that funding came from Schaefer Beer, which gave $1 million to the project in exchange for naming rights.
Unlike the deal between Schaefer and the Patriots, the Bills had no say over the matter of its stadium name—but they let their displeasure be known anyway.
If “Coffee Rich Park” sounded crass to Wilson, he wasn’t the only one. After a press conference to announce the new name, Rich Jr. recalls being asked by a New York Post reporter, “Are you under psychiatric care, or are you on illegal drugs?”
A month later, with tensions high between the Bills and Rich, the company announced it was upping its offer to $1.5 million over 25 years, and asked that the facility be called “Rich Stadium.” The new proposal still left Wilson offended. He announced at a press conference that the team would match Rich’s offer and have it named “Buffalo Bills Stadium.” The legislature voted 16-4 in favor of Rich Products’ offer that November.
Wilson followed up by announcing he’d still match Rich’s offer if the facility was called “Erie County Stadium.” The legislature officially approved all terms of the lease, including its name, again, 19-1.
The battle was far from over. At first, both of Buffalo’s daily newspapers weren’t calling the new stadium by its branded name. Even after the papers conceded, the team still only referred to it as “the new stadium” or “One Bills Drive” (its street address) in promotional materials.
Rich Stadium opened in the summer of 1973. Just before its first preseason game, Rich Jr. recalls in his book, the county filed a restraining order against the Bills after workers were spotted removing a “Rich Stadium” sign overnight. Days later, the food company sued the team “for tortious interference with a favorable contract.”
The argument continued into the next decade through the courts. Finally, in 1981, a decade after the stadium name was approved by the county, Wilson and Rich Sr. reached a handshake agreement: The Bills would no longer ask people to avoid calling their home “Rich Stadium,” and would print the name on all tickets and programs.
A new lease was signed in 1998, keeping the team in town and freeing the Bills from a stadium name they never wanted. At the suggestion of then-governor George Pataki, the building was renamed “Ralph Wilson Stadium,” after the Bills’ owner. Wilson, who died in 2014, accepted the new name without a fight.