JOHN WAWROW, AP Sports Writer
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Following years of discussions, Chris Koch will never forget the moment the Buffalo Bills sold him on the idea of transforming Ralph Wilson Stadium into what became New Era Field on Thursday.
It happened near dusk on June 15, when the New Era Cap Co. president and CEO was whisked by police escort to the Bills’ headquarters and ushered to midfield where he was greeted by team owners Terry and Kim Pegula. That’s when the west-end scoreboard began displaying a three-minute video highlighting the legacies of Koch’s late father, David, and Bills late Hall-of-Fame owner Ralph Wilson, and emphasizing what both meant to Buffalo.
“I’ve got to tell you, I had tears rolling down my face,” Koch said during an interview with The Associated Press. “And Terry came up to me and said, ‘Look, we won’t do this with anyone else. We want you.'”
Walking off the field, Koch recalled how New Era executive Paul McAdam leaned over and, in his thick Scottish accent, said: “You must do this deal.”
Seven weeks later, a naming rights agreement with the Buffalo-based sports headwear and apparel company was reached in a deal worth more than $35 million and spanning the remaining seven years of the stadium’s lease. New Era also has the rights of first refusal to extend the deal under a new lease or if the Bills build a new stadium.
“For me, this partnership is personal on so many levels,” said Koch during a news conference to unveil the new name. “To have New Era associated with the Buffalo Bills, who are incredibly well-respected brand, with a rich history with the NFL and our community, is a significant honor and a privilege that I don’t take lightly.”
For the Bills, the deal generates revenue to a small-market franchise that has at times struggled to remain competitive, and forced to regionalize east into Rochester and north into Toronto to broaden its base.
For New Era, the agreement marks a coming-out party for a company established in 1920 by Koch’s great grandfather, Ehrhardt, and has become a world leader in sports-related headwear in large part because of the inroads David Koch made during his 30-year tenure as president.
The company has gone from producing 50,000 caps in 1920 to 50 million last year, which were sold in more than 80 countries. New Era also has more than 500 licensing deals, including Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL, Manchester United and the Australian Football League.
Ralph Wilson’s name went up on the stadium during the 1998 season, after a 25-year agreement expired with Buffalo-based Rich Products.
In 2012, Wilson gave approval for the team to pursue a naming rights agreement. That plan was put on hold when he died in March 2014. The Pegulas, who bought the Bills seven months later, elected to wait at least a year to secure a deal out of respect to the former owner.
“Today we look to the future, and today we turn a page in Bills history,” Terry Pegula said. “I’ve been told by people who knew Ralph — I never met Ralph — that Ralph would be proud to turn this page with us.”
Wilson’s widow, Mary Wilson, supports the name change.
“I love Buffalo, and with all of the resurgence that it’s enjoying right now, it’s fitting that the new naming rights agreement is with New Era,” Wilson said in a statement released by the Bills. “Naturally, there’s an element of sadness for me personally, that I hope fans would understand. But I’m excited for the Bills’ organization and for New Era with their successes. It’s so great that a local company of this magnitude will be on this stadium.”
Jim Grinstead, publisher of the industry newsletter “Revenues from Sports Venues,” considers the naming rights agreement an ideal fit for Buffalo and for the NFL, because of New Era’s ties to the league.
“Buffalo is probably not going to attract a Pepsi or Coke or Nike or anyone like that,” Grinstead said. “But a local one is going to feel good because the local folks in Buffalo do care about the local community and the ties with that.”
The company will get an immediate boost in prime-time exposure during the Bills’ home opener, a Thursday night game against the New York Jets on Sept. 15.
The New Era logo will be featured on the back of the scoreboard facing the main parking lots and throughout the stadium. Because the agreement was reached so late in the summer, some of the signage won’t be ready until next season.
The agreement is exciting to Koch because he grew up a Bills fan and attended each of the team’s four Super Bowl losses in the 1990s.
“I have goosebumps talking about it,” Koch said. “It’s my hope that New Era, quite frankly, can match up to the legacy and the standards that Ralph had.”
And he’s pleased to build Wilson’s legacy by partnering with the Pegulas, who also own the NHL Buffalo Sabres.
“I admire the Pegulas for not going out and finding a big bank to give them a lot of money to slap a name on the stadium,” Koch said.
He can’t help but wonder what his father might think of how far New Era has come since he died in 2002.
“When he died, we were a very small, U.S.-based baseball company,” Koch said. “So to be able to have the success we’ve had and grow the way we’ve grown, it kind of hits me right in the heart.”
This story has been corrected to reflect Ralph Wilson’s name went up on stadium during 1998 season.
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