How New Era Took Buffalo From Rust Belt Town to Sportswear Capital of the World

"I like to think we owe something to all the people who live in Western New York," says CEO Chris Koch

Known for the iconic 59Fifty hat, New Era has been making caps in Buffalo since the 1930s. Credit: Bill Wippert/AP

On a beautiful, warm, blue-skied day last June, Chris Koch, the CEO of New Era Cap Company, walked out to the 50-yard line of Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills have played here in the quiet suburbs of Buffalo since 1973, bringing fans out by the tens of thousands on temperate fall afternoons and enlisting locals to help dig the field out during snowstorms. On this particular summer day, there wasn't a snow shovel in sight. Koch had been personally invited by the Bills' president, Russ Brandon, and the Bills' owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, to stand on the AstroTurf in the middle of the empty field and watch a 3-minute video on one of the stadium's massive screens. The video montaged footage from the Bills' 56-year history and New Era's 96-year history, and by the end of it, tears were running down Koch's cheeks.

Brandon and the Pegulas had invited him there in the hopes of convincing him to buy the naming rights to the stadium, which had for many years, by default, held the name of the Bills' founder, Ralph Wilson. Koch, whose great-grandfather founded New Era, shook Terry Pegula's hand on the spot and said, "Let's make this happen." Soon after, Koch signed a 7-year lease to rename the stadium "New Era Field," and by the beginning of this football season, the New Era logo had been stamped across the stadium, inside and out. A few weeks later, the company announced that it would be expanding its line of NFL fan products.

In many ways, New Era was an obvious choice for the stadium; the burgeoning company, famous across the world for its iconic 59Fifty hat, has roots in Buffalo and a longstanding rapport with the city's sports teams. It's one of very few global (or even national) companies that are headquartered in Buffalo – a Rust Belt city that's suffered from steady economic decline over the last half century as steel manufacturing and shipping along the Erie Canal has died down. As other Buffalo-based companies have shuttered their doors or moved out of the city, New Era has been a beacon of hope and a reliable source of job opportunities, employing 250 people in their office and about 250 more in their factory nearby in Derby, NY. In 2003, M&T Bank, one of Buffalo's few other nationally-known companies, bought the naming rights to the Baltimore Ravens' stadium. Buying the naming rights to the Bills stadium was a natural next step for New Era to pledge their loyalty to Buffalo.

It was unprecedented, as Koch points out, for an official NFL partner to buy naming rights for a football team's stadium. But the deal was also unusual for a company whose history is steeped in baseball fandom. New Era has been making baseball caps in Buffalo since the 1930s, and since 1993, they've been the exclusive provider of on-field baseball caps for all Major League Baseball teams. In 1996, Spike Lee famously asked the company to make him a red New York Yankees hat to match a jacket he wanted to wear to a game. Until then, the company had only ever made hats for fans with identical coloring and design to the hats worn on the field. New Era swiftly negotiated the unprecedented request with the Yankees and MLB and produced a red Yankees hat. Within months, they were inundated with requests for red Yankees hats. The company marks this as the turning point when New Era started to become a fashion brand – not just a fan apparel brand. In the following years, Spike Lee directed commercials for New Era, designed collections for them, and came to Buffalo to meet with the Kochs and tour the factory.

It wasn't until 2012 that New Era began partnering with the NFL to provide all of the headwear worn on the sidelines at football games. If a player or employee of any NFL team wants to wear a hat at a game, it has to be one of the team-branded baseball caps or knit hats that New Era makes, so when the camera casts across the sideline and zooms in on a face, it's hard to miss the New Era flag logo that's stitched into the left side of each cap.

Even as the hats have made their way onto TV screens, into stores across the planet, and onto the heads of Chance the Rapper and Jay Z, the Koch family has held on tight to New Era's identity as an independent company and, more importantly, as a Buffalo company. Major apparel and athletics giants have made their bids to absorb New Era into their brands, but to Chris Koch, there's no temptation. "There probably isn't a week that goes by that somebody isn't calling or sending a letter or trying to get an introduction," he says. "It's just not something that I'm interested in doing. I really enjoy what I'm doing."

Ten years ago, New Era began to outgrow its offices in the suburbs and made the bold decision to buy a defunct 1950s Federal Reserve building on Delaware Avenue in downtown Buffalo – a neighborhood that was once a bustling business district but has become eerily vacant during Buffalo’s economic decline. The behemoth concrete building came outfitted with several elaborately secure vaults, a gun range for security personnel to practice their shooting, and an underground bunker. New Era overhauled the exterior with a sleek glass facade, repurposed the bunker and gun range for storage, and built a flagship store with office space for their 250 Buffalo employees.

Koch says the building has been a major factor in recruiting staff and collaborators. "I think it's helped speak to our heritage and the authenticity of our brand," he says. "In many cases, we bring people to Buffalo whether they're entertainers, athletes – or guys like Spike Lee that are pretty much icons in their own right – and when they come to Buffalo, and they see what's going on here, I think it really helps the city because they can leave Buffalo, and I think they actually leave talking positively about it."

But the company's dedication to Buffalo has paid off beyond creating a mythos of small-town authenticity. Koch is on the board of University at Buffalo and has collaborated with the university on research and development projects. The New Era offices are a block away from the global headquarters of Delaware North – a massive hospitality and entertainment management company that has provided New Era with many of its customers over the years. And having ties to the Sabres and the Bills has helped New Era reach hockey and football fans on a national level.

Since New Era is a private company, Koch can't comment on how much it cost to buy the naming rights to the stadium but says that the price was "commensurate with markets the same size," putting it around $5-7 million per year. This may seem like a hefty investment to make towards a football team that hasn’t gone to the playoffs since 1999, but when you consider the fact that a 30-second Super Bowl commercial costs $5 million, buying the naming rights starts to sound less like a leap of faith and more like a good deal on marketing. Every time the stadium is mentioned on TV during a game or in a news story, the company’s name recognition is reinforced. Every time a Bills fan goes to a game, they are reminded of the company's fervor for their hometown and of the symbiotic relationship between New Era and Buffalo. "Buffalo's given us a lot," says Koch. "We owe something to Buffalo. Even more so, I like to think we owe something to all the people who live in Western New York."