After a two-year hiatus, the Buffalo Bills are returning to Growney Stadium at the St. John Fisher University campus for training camp.
“We are excited to be a part of it once again. We share the same level of excitement and energy all the fans always bring with them,” says Gerard Rooney, president of Fisher.
The training camp first came to Rochester in 2000. Before that, the camp was held on Fredonia’s campus, south of Buffalo.
The move to Rochester coincided with new stadium facilities which were modified to fit the needs of an NFL team, says Rooney, who worked at the university as a vice president at the time. It also was evidence of the Bills’ efforts to build a regional fanbase, especially among those who have young children, are not season-ticket holders, or live outside Buffalo.
“There’s a real ease of access. The stadium is just off I-490 but it’s also (still) close to the metro area,” Rooney says.
The nearly two-decade relationship between football team and university was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic when a 2020 NFL mandate required teams to stay at their own facilities for training camp.
“Overall, the feeling was disappointment. But we understood the complexities of everything with the pandemic,” says Rooney. “We were going through very similar conversations at the school too.”
Last year, more than 15,000 fans were able to attend a public practice with the Bills. However, that practice took place at Highmark Stadium in Buffalo.
“It wasn’t from not wanting to be here. It was more about the structures they had built in with COVID. It didn’t make sense logistically for them to move their operations (in 2021),” says Todd Harrison, assistant dean of the School of Business at Fisher, who has a background in sports management. He has been involved in training camp preparations since 2005.
“Nobody, no one in Buffalo who I work hand-in-hand with on a monthly or weekly basis at times, in all my years has ever indicated that they want to leave (St. John Fisher),” Harrison adds.
Fisher is actually one of the few locations outside team facilities which still host NFL teams. In 2015, a dozen franchises took training camp on the road, but seven years later, that number has been halved.
While smaller campuses cannot always compete with the specialized equipment available at team facilities, there are many easily overlooked benefits to college campuses, Harrison says. The relationship between the Bills organization and Fisher already makes the transition for video and information technology support, nutritional experts, and groundskeeping crew seamless between the two groups.
“We basically have 300 people moving down here for three weeks,” says Harrison. “My job is to make sure that it can be, coach just sets his computer down and plugs right into the system.”
Longer term projects are discussed and worked out months in advance. For example, when Growney Stadium installed a track in 2010, the university also built an additional grass field as per the Bills’ team specifications.
In addition, the smaller campus makes it an accessible, walkable area, unlike other facilities which can require golf carts to navigate. Team development and culture can also thrive in a smaller space where players spend time together.
“Fans might come for a couple hours, but (the Bills players and coaches) are here to work,” Harrison says. “Coach (Sean) McDermott is interested in building a real culture for the team. At camp, teammates spend 24 hours together versus going home to separate houses.”
That closeness for Bills teammates translates to closeness with fans as well, who have always showed up in droves. The first year training camp was held at Fisher, attendance eclipsed 100,000 people over multiple days.This year is projected to be similar.
“There’s definitely interest because of the hiatus but I think also the growing success of the team,” says Rooney. “It really is energizing to be a part of the crowd. Fans, young and old, hoping to see the players, their idols, up close.”
Peter Gregory, an attorney at McConville Considine Cooman & Morin PC and member of the Facebook group Rochester Bills Backers, is looking forward to seeing the team compete.
“I think we all have high expectations for them this year,” he says.
Gregory recalls attending training camp with his father when it first came to Rochester and the kindness of Bills quarterback Doug Flutie sticking around to give him an autograph long after practice ended. He plans on continuing the generational tradition by bringing his daughter this year.
“Not every other franchise gives you the chance to be this close to the players. That’s really special,” Gregory says.
Tickets will be available July 14, with practices held from July 24 to August 11. The practices are free to attend, but limited due to capacity and safety considerations.