ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 18: Tashard Choice #30 of the Buffalo Bills rushes during their NFL game against the Miami Dolphins at Ralph Wilson Stadium on December 18, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
For many Buffalo Bills season ticket holders, the first thing they look for on the schedule when it's released each year are the late-season home games. When weather comes into play, many Bills fans are happy to support their team, but worry about doing so when the wind whips and the thermometer falls at Ralph Wilson Stadium. In 2012, the Bills host four home games - with three in Orchard Park - during the month of December. That's not good for business.
Buffalo will welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars to town on December 2, followed by the St. Louis Rams a week later. The team heads north to Toronto to for their third straight "home" game, against the Seattle Seahawks, before heading south to Miami for their lone away game in December against the Dolphins. On the 30th, they return to Ralph Wilson Stadium to close out the regular season against the New York Jets.
In an interview with WGR 550 in Buffalo Wednesday morning, team CEO Russ Brandon said the third thing he looked at on the schedule was December, following the home opener and the prime time game.
"From a sales standpoint it's not ideal," said Brandon before he was even asked. "We've talked about that before. For whatever reason, historically we have a difficult time with December home games. On the flip side of that, from a competitive and football standpoint, we're thrilled. It gives us an opportunity to play meaningful games at home in December, and that's what you want."
When pressed further on the subject, Brandon first noted how difficult the process is of making the schedule before explaining why the Bills don't have a lot of say.
"[The schedule is] never going to be perfect," said Brandon. "We talk to them about what works for us, but we can only protect dates that we have something else going on in the facility. Being a football-only stadium, we do not have very many of those variables come into play.
"When you look at it initially, we want what's best for our fans," continued Brandon. "Our hope is that when we're playing those games in December that we're going to have the excitement in the building, and that 12th man to get us over the hump. We all saw what is was like when the 12th man was back last year."
It's the first time in team history that the Bills have hosted four games in December. Since the schedule expanded to 16 games and 17 weeks with the bye, Buffalo has hosted three "winter" games in a single season three times: 2002, 2009 (which included two in December and one in early January), and in 2011. Brandon noted a year ago that finishing the year at home was both good and bad when the team had problems selling out.
"It is a bit of an anomaly to have three home games in December, but we look at it as an opportunity," said Brandon last December. "You know, you want to be home in December, especially when these games mean something."
Despite the Bills making a dwindling playoff push last December, none of that month's home games sold out. The team drew 56,643 and 60,988 fans to see losses to the Tennessee Titans and Miami Dolphins, respectively, which eliminated them from playoff contention. The team sold just 45,112 tickets to a meaningless Christmas Eve contest against the Denver Broncos. The three games were the only three home games that did not sell out in 2011.
Brandon noted last year that performance isn't the only thing keeping fans away in December. According to the CEO, only 60% of December home games sold out in the last decade - and during the 1990s, the stadium only sold out 55% of the time. The team even had problems selling out playoff games during the Super Bowl era, with the "Greatest Comeback in NFL History" blacked out on local television.
With the help of increased season ticket sales from the Bills' free agent spending, an entire off-season to sell single-game tickets (as opposed to 2011's truncated ticket selling time), and hopefully a winning record heading into the final month, Buffalo is looking to reverse the December blackout trend.