Hours before EJ Manuel and the new-look Bills made their home preseason debut against the Minnesota Vikings Friday night, fans entering Ralph Wilson Stadium encountered another, decidedly less exciting first: a new league policy banning many seat cushions, most bags, and all but the smallest of purses from the stadium confines.
The new policy was not without its pitfalls.
“If I have to take it back to my car, I’d rather do it now,” said Bill DeGrout outside Gate 5, where, half-an-hour before gates were scheduled to open, he was still looking for a straight answer as to whether his red Tops-brand tote bag would be allowed into the stadium.
The 35-year-old West Seneca resident said he heard conflicting reports prior to Friday about the new bag policy. News reports said only hand-sized purses were permitted, while an email from the ticket provider StubHub seemed to suggest that bags at or smaller than 12-by-6-by-12 inches were acceptable.
The revamped bag bans are among a series of new game-day policies the NFL and Bills devised this offseason with an eye toward increasing safety and shortening wait times for fans entering the stadium. League officials have acknowledged that the bag policy in particular came in response to April’s Boston Marathon bombings.
Unfortunately for DeGrout, according to the new bag policy, only bags that are both the prescribed size or smaller and completely see-through are allowed. And so he headed back to his car to stash the offending tote, which contained a sweater and diapers for his 2-year-old son.
A nearby sign listing the new rules did not help matters much. Regarding bags like DeGrout’s, the sign said, “Bags larger than 12” x 6” x 12” that are not clear” were not allowed in, implying that non-clear bags within the size limit would be permitted.
Outside Gate 6, other fans struggled to decipher the finer points of the bag ban.
Bonnie Isler of Amherst opted to try her luck with the most common of plastic bags – the grocery bag. “I’m hoping they’ll let it in,” she said, as she waited in line with her son, Brett.
Isler was prepared to dispose of the wrinkled yellow bag and its contents – a selection of unopened snacks – if security turned her away, saying that she had parked in the farthest reaches of the parking lot and had no intention of returning to the car. Luckily enough, members of the Bills’ new “Blue Team” Tailgate Patrol drove by in a golf-cart to give folks in need of league-approved storage space complimentary freezer bags.
One family of three from Crown Point came equipped with a blue-and-white mesh bag recently purchased at Yankee Stadium. The parents, who said they had tried – and failed – to find a clear plastic bag that met league specifications, were told that the Yankees-brand bag was “stadium guaranteed” when they purchased it.
As it turned out, what’s good at Yankee Stadium does not necessarily pass muster at One Bills Drive. The Yankees mesh bag wound up back in the family’s car.
Although the parents, who declined to give their names, understood the safety concerns motivating the new policy, they expressed frustration that the only bags allowed into league stadiums are nearly impossible to find in stores.
“It’s very hard to find a clear bag. No one sells them,” said the mother, who pointed out that no clear bags were available for purchase at the nearby Bills mobile gift shop. “If they had a bag to sell me, I’d gladly buy it,” she said.
An employee at the gift shop said the team expected to have clear bags in stock in time for the next home game.
In a way, fans like DeGrout and the Crown Point family were the lucky ones – they sorted out their bag-related issues well before gates opened. Others were not so fortunate.
After gates opened, as the majority of fans whisked past security and into the stadium, several women could be seen arguing with security about their purses, which exceeded the new 4.5-by-6.5-inch cutoff.
Bills officials expected as much.
“We anticipate some women that have been used to bringing in a large purse in years prior will go to a clutch purse,” said Andy Major, Bills vice president of event operations and guest experience.
Major said Bills officials were working hard to educate fans about the new bag policy, and he encouraged fans to visit the team’s website for a full breakdown of what is and is not permitted. In the meantime, he added, Blue Team personnel and other Bills staff were on hand to assist fans with questions about the policy.
Ultimately, Major said, these kinds of safety measures are nothing new.
“This has been an evolving thing since 9/11,” he said.