The only subway line in Buffalo goes up and down Main Street and ends at the KeyBank Center downtown. Standing on the subway platform last Saturday night, the train whizzes by and as each car passes me all I can see are blurs of orange. As I step on to the train it is packed to the brim with people all dressed in orange and black t-shirts and jerseys all headed to the arena. A passenger just trying to get to their destination now squished on the packed train asks a man with his face painted orange “Where are all of you going?” The man energetically responds, “To the Bandits game!”
There are very few places in the world where you will find a packed subway or highway of cars full of lacrosse fans all headed to cheer on their team. At the NCAA Final Four, tens of thousands of fans will come to watch the championships, but that only happens once a year. In Buffalo, a.k.a. Banditland, it happens every home game during the NLL season.
Buffalo is a great sports town with the Buffalo Bills of the NFL and the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL being the biggest teams always supported by the die hard Bills Mafia and the hockey crazed people in the city. Unfortunately, these two teams have never won a championship despite being close several times in the past few decades.
The Buffalo Bandits have won 4 NLL championships with their most recent coming in 2008 and have given Buffalo sports fans a taste of what it is like to win. I think it is definitely fair to say that Buffalo is a lacrosse town, which is a title usually reserved for places like Syracuse or Baltimore, but if you have ever been to a Bandits game you would know how much lacrosse means to the people of Buffalo, nearby Ontario, and Western New York.
For Game 1 of the NLL Championship series this past Saturday, the Buffalo Bandits played the Calgary Roughnecks in front of a crowd of 15,747 fans. In 2008, when the Bandits won the championship they played in front of a crowd of 18,690 people. The Bandits have another chance to sell out the arena if they can force a Game 3. It blew me away when I went to my first game last year that all of these fans are there to watch lacrosse.
Banditland is a special place where a packed arena of fans are on the edge of their seat as they yell at the referees to make a holding call, cheer when a player wins a tough loose ball, go nuts when the Bandits score, and cannot wait for a big hit or fight. The fans have their own special cheers for when an opposing player goes to the penalty box and will yell and curse at the other team all game. Fans proudly wear their John Tavares, Mark Steenhuis, Dhane Smith, or Matt Vinc jerseys at the game and around town.
The Bandits have been playing in Buffalo since 1991 and many fans that come to the games now have been coming for decades. Nowhere else in professional lacrosse is there as rich of a continued history as there is in Buffalo. The Bandits are a part of the city’s identity and seeing someone wearing a Bandits hat, t-shirt, or hoodie is almost as common as seeing Bills or Sabres gear. Parents who probably knew nothing about lacrosse took their kids to the games in the 90s and 2000s because tickets were cheap and it was something fun to do. Those kids grew up looking up to the Bandits players as much as other professional athletes, fell in love with the game of lacrosse, and now continue to go to games with their kids.
I cannot even imagine what it must be like as a player to have so much support from the community and to have those 15,000 or more fans on your side holding their breath as you make a save or run up the floor on a breakaway. The Bandits are treated with respect by the local media and are featured on the news regularly as important people in the community. They get the feeling of really being a professional athlete and not just a weekend warrior that hopefully all pro lacrosse players will get to feel one day.
The passion and dedication of the Buffalo Bandits fans and organization give professional lacrosse hope as the sport continues to grow. Every city with a team, indoor or outdoor, could one day be like Buffalo and several other cities with NLL teams already have similar fan bases.
Walking out of the arena after a win or loss the street is always full of fans still chanting “Let’s Go Bandits!” If you ever want to experience the real potential of professional lacrosse then make your way to Buffalo for a game where not only are the players and coaches there for the love of the game, but the stands will be packed because Banditland is a city full of true lacrosse fans.