When the Buffalo Bills decided not to opt into an update to the NFL's dinosaur-age blackout policy last week, the decision was met with a mixture of resignation and disappointment. Congressman Brian Higgins, a vocal supporter of the blackout policy change to better serve Bills fans, summed up what a lot of fans were probably thinking upon hearing the news in a Buffalo News report: "I think it's disappointing, and I think it's somewhat short-sighted. I'm disappointed that they didn't take into account the loyalty of the fan base here in Buffalo."
Upon further review, however, the issue is far deeper than a simple "sports fan versus sports business" dispute, and the Bills may even be planning to honor the spirit of the 85 percent rule without opting in.
A lot has been made about the extra cost to the team that opting in would create in the form of a fee to the league, which is believed to be about $90,000 per sellout. While every few hundred thousand dollars counts for a small market team, it's hard to believe the Bills' decision hinged on what roughly equates to a minimum salary for one player.
Bills CEO Russ Brandon was interviewed on WGR 550 two days ago, and his statement on the issue clarified the team's position. Here's my transcription:
"Looking at [the policy], we took a very methodical approach. We really took a lot of time with the resolution as we read it. The number one thing was that we protected our number one asset, which is our season ticket holders. We have such great support here; we sell out, typically, all of our games September, October, and into November. We have struggled over the last, actually, 20 years in selling out our December home games. People say, 'Well, in the 2000s, you haven't sold out a lot of your December games.' Well, actually we've sold out more December games in the 2000s than we did in the '90s. It's a 20 years sample that it's a difficult sell here. When you look at it from a factual perspective, if you look at our last eight games that we have not sold out, only one game would have even been affected by the 85 percent rule. When we get close to that number, we have a way to somehow kick it over the uprights every time. It's when we're so far below the 85 percent that we've difficulty getting the game on television."
What I get out of this is two things:
- The Bills probably made the right call. It seems the league understands it needs to change the blackout policy, that this is only a first step in that direction, and that first step doesn't really apply to the Bills and would even cost them money, however nominal that amount is.
- Brandon seems to say here that if a game is 85 percent sold out, the team would find a way to kick it up to a full sell-out (i.e. purchase the remaining tickets) and put the game on television anyway. So the Bills and their fans may be able to have their cake and eat it too, if one interprets Brandon's statement the way I do.
WGR's Sal Capaccio didn't follow up on this interesting tidbit, but I would love to hear Brandon clarify this. One assumes that one of two things could happen, for which there is historical precedent: the team could work with an outside donor, like when Buffalo restaurateur Russell Salvatore bought up remaining tickets for the home finale in 2010; or the team could buy the tickets outright and donate them to the community, as Ralph Wilson has previously done (often funnelling the tickets through the United Way).
One thing is clear: if the Bills are in the hunt this year, their three December home games might see a return of Buffalo's cold-weather homefield advantage. It's hard for me to believe that the games wouldn't sell out if they didn't enter December with seven or eight wins. As Russ Brandon said in the same interview: "There is nothing like being there. There is nothing like Ralph Wilson Stadium and being the 12th man."