Football franchises live or die by the support of their fans. When your fanbase waivers, the team may falter. A lot of folks may stop being so enthusiastic about their chosen football team the more poorly they do. With a few exceptions, that is. Such is the case for the Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo hasn’t been to a Super Bowl game since 1994. They’re tied for the most Super Bowl appearances without a win–four times total. They’ve had to contend with the complicated legacies some famous Bills players have left behind. From 2001 to 2016 has been dubbed a “playoff drought” for the team. They’re certainly no New England Patriots or Kansas City Chiefs.
With these facts at the forefront, you’d think some folks might be tired of rooting for the Buffalo Bills. However, the opposite is true.
This team from upstate New York has one of the most loyal fanbases in the NFL. And despite playoff game droughts or Super Bowl losses, these fans have a near-rabid devotion to their team. So much so that they have a name for themselves: Bills Mafia. What the Bills Mafia is and what it means is an incredibly interesting story–one that has shaped both fans and the organization at large.
What is Bills Mafia?
Bills Mafia is sort of difficult to exactly nail down. What started off as a tweet is now a worldwide movement of Buffalo Bills fans. It’s as much a social media hashtag as it is an identity. It involves traditions, beliefs, community, philanthropy, branding, and more.
The best way to describe Bills Mafia is as a movement. It is a collection of fans, players, and even other NFL professionals that contribute to and define a unique microcosm of football fandom. It’s a movement that has very humble and silly origins, and has gone on to have a tremendous impact on the world.
Who started Bills Mafia?
The story of the Bills Mafia is a prime example of how the internet can shape and transform a culture. And its humble origins begin with a single tweet.
In November 2010, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson dropped an important pass in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He knew as much, and after the game took to Twitter to vent his frustration. In his now infamous “God” tweet, Johnson lamented that his deity had not been on his side.
Johnson’s tweet caught the attention of the news media, who took the story and ran with it the next day. It was even discussed on the View. Later that evening–after Johnson’s tweet had already been analyzed thoroughly by the media–ESPN sports analyst Adam Schefter retweeted it. This ruffled the feathers of some Buffalo fans, who found it both funny and in poor taste that Schefter would dredge up the now day-old tweet after it had already been played out.
According to BuffaloFAMBase–the original site for the Bills Mafia–this led to a so-called circling of wagons. Started by Buffalo fans Del Reid, Breyon Harris, and Leslie Wille, fans on Twitter playfully mocked Schefter. As was his right, Schefter blocked the troublemakers, but by doing so cemented the beginning of a revolution in sports fan history.
#BillsMafia is born
Because they were now the “bad guys” in the eyes of Schefter, Reid, Harris, and Wille were inspired to create #BillsMafia on Twitter. Meant primarily as an inside joke, the hashtag gained some popularity but remained relatively unknown. But then in Spring 2011, things rapidly changed, launching Bills Mafia into a greater reality and atmosphere.
Linebacker Nick Barnett was a free agent in the Spring of 2011 and was looking for a new home to land in. At the time, he was choosing between fresh Super Bowl winners the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo. An active Twitter user himself, Barnett found and latched onto the Bills Mafia hashtag. This was one of several reasons Barnett eventually signed with the Bills, and fans welcomed him with open arms.
While many other players have since adopted #BillsMafia and cited it as a reason for joining the team, this fan movement is only recently being accepted by the organization at large. NFL teams don’t normally embrace fan identities such as this one, and it took the Buffalo Bills a long time in doing so. Their eventual embrace of Bills Mafia was largely slowed by the loose association the name had with organized crime, and the raucous nature of fans who identify themselves under this banner.
Why does the Bills Mafia break tables?
The behavior of fans in the Bills Mafia can be sometimes described as chaotic and hell-raising. No other fanbase tears it up quite like Buffalo fans do. This largely stems from the fact that #BillsMafia is, in and of itself, a brand, an identity, and a culture. As such, there are particular traditions and practices fans display. And with the advent of social media, these practices have become amplified and more visible. The major example of this is table smashing.
As far as we can tell, there was no definitive kickoff to the tradition of breaking tables during Bills Mafia tailgate parties. Some users on Reddit claim it began sometime between 2015 and 2016 when videos of fans jumping on and smashing tables went viral. There’s still no definitive answer.
Regardless of how it began, table smashing is now a mainstream part of Bills Mafia tailgate tradition. Buffalo fans will go as far as climbing cars and RVs to pile drive plastic folding tables. Sometimes those tables are even lit on fire. It’s an insane ritual, one that inspires both shock and amusement. But it’s not all that Buffalo Bills fans are known for.
What are Buffalo Bills fans known for?
Apart from breaking tables, there are a few other things Buffalo Bills fans are known for. When it comes to tailgate culture and tradition, they have one other major practice. And it involves a guy dubbed “Pinto Ron.”
To put it succinctly, Pinto Ron is a lifelong fan who has been lugging an old Ford Pinto to each Bills game. After cooking his tailgate meals on jerry-rigged griddles on the Pinto, Ron will approach a group of people and ask for condiments. With modified dispensers, these folks cover Ron in ketchup and mustard from head to toe. It is a wildly popular tailgating event that is nearly its own ticketed show at this point.
Apart from these antics, Buffalo Bills fans are known for their charity. They’re for sure a rowdy bunch, but they have big hearts. In the past, they have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits and charities. They’ve donated to pediatric cancer research. They donated to the children’s foundation run by Andy Dalton–quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals–and his wife Jordan.
When a Bills superfan passed away, they raised money for a student’s charity in his name. Del Reid, thttps://www.theringer.com/nfl/2019/9/26/20884655/buffalo-bills-mafia-tailgatehe OG #BillsMafia don, even donates a portion of his t-shirt sales to charity as well. The Bills Mafia has a lot of heart to give.
You might think the Bills Mafia is a crazy bunch. And you’re not wrong. But there’s a lot to this fan movement. As wild as their antics can be–and they are definitely wild–these fans create a true community around their favorite football team. As they chant “Go Bills!” they are backed by each other, the players, and the team they love. Other fan bases could learn a thing or two from the Bills Mafia.