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The Bills blackout and why Buffalo might not be a viable NFL market anyone

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The CBS station in Buffalo, New York will not be showing the Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars football game that is being played in Orchard Park just outside of Buffalo. The game was not sold out 72 hours prior to kickoff. Ralph Wilson's Buffalo Bills have a record of no wins and four losses and the team is inept this year. Jacksonville has won two games and lost two contests and has no one on the roster that can create a buzz to get people to come out to the game and buy the unsold tickets to avert the blackout.

The truth is that Buffalo as a city is not all that attractive to major league sports franchises. A half century ago, Buffalo was a hot commodity with a decent population with expendable income for sports.

But the sports business has changed since the day in 1959 when Wilson plucked down $25,000 and bought an American Football League franchise in Buffalo. The city of Buffalo has changed too and is a civic failure thanks to poor political decisions by both political parties made on the federal level from President Kennedy onward and a slew of bad decisions by numerous New York governors and legislatures.

Western New York and Wilson's marketplace on the I-90/New York State Thruway corridor from Syracusewest to Buffalo and then slightly north to Niagara Falls and the Canadian border is an economic disaster. Two and a half years ago, Wilson struck a deal that allowed him to play one regular season game annually in Toronto through 2012, along with three pre-season games in 2008, 2010, and 2012. The Toronto corporate community has not warmed up to the idea of having a game a year in the city. The then 89-year-old Wilson claimed he needed to broaden his market, and insisted that playing a game in Toronto is no different than holding training camp at St. John Fisher in Rochester. He also emphasized that people in Buffalo and ErieCountyshould not worry about the long-term future of the Bills.

Wilson plans to keep the team in Orchard Park while he is alive, but after his death, the Wilson estate will offer the team to the highest bidder — and that might come from Toronto.

Wilson's lease in Orchard Park ends after the 2012 season and a political scramble will ensue to keep the team in Western New York.

The Wilson-Toronto agreement drew the attention of Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Buffalo-area Rep. Brian Higgins. But there is more to the issue than Wilson selling a regular season game annually to Toronto interests. The Buffalo market is hurting economically and the National Football League no longer embraces a concept known as "LeagueThink" which made sure that the weakest link as nearly as solvent as the strong link. Wilson was vehemently against the 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement in its initial form because he felt there wasn't enough revenue sharing among NFL teams, and that smaller markets, such as Buffalo, would eventually be unable to support an NFL franchise.

In the fall of 2006, Senator Schumer decided to "help" NFL owners break their logjam over how to redistribute revenues so that comparatively smaller market teams — such the Bills and the Bengals — have a chance to keep up with the big boys, such as Dallasand New England. Schumer was hoping the weight of his office, along with other NFL states, would pressure owners into coming up with a revenue-sharing formula that satisfies owners from both high- and low-revenue ends. The owners did hammer out an agreement that even Wilson approved.

The present Collective Bargaining Agreement ends following the Super Bowl in February. Before the owners really can negotiate with the players, the owners have to satisfy themselves and come up with a revenue sharing deal that pleases Dallas' Jerry Jones, Washington's Daniel Snyder and other big market boys and the small town owners like Wilson and the Jaguars Wayne Weaver.

While Senator Schumer wanted to know what Wilson's eventual plan is for the Bills, Representative Higgins wanted to see the Bills' ownership become just like Green Bay's, where the Packers are owned by the community. He also wanted to see the Bills remain in Orchard Park beyond the expiration of Wilson's lease with Erie Countyi n 2012. But, the NFL does not allow community ownerships other than the one in Green Bay.

Higgins tried to address this issue with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (a western New York native whose father Charles filled the New York Senate seat of Robert F. Kennedy after he was gunned down in Los Angelesin June 1968): Higgins even wrote Goodell a letter that states, "The Bills are a regional treasure and part of the fabric of our community. Community ownership in the Bills would give the Buffalo fans that built this franchise a real role in steering the future of this team."

The problems that Wilson, or any other owner who would come into Buffalo, faces stem from the fact that Buffalo has been a city in decline for more than four decades. With limited revenues and a western New York economy that is, to be kind, sluggish at best, Buffalo is not the same market it was in 1960 when Wilson first opened shop. The steel, grain, and flour industries are nearly nonexistent; the city's port lost much of its business when the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway allowed ships to bypass Buffalo, and the city's population today is half of what it was when Wilson founded the Bills. The TV market is too small and the corporate community is limited — two key factors in landing an NFL franchise.

Wilson's secondary markets can't help out much with corporate dollars. Rochester lost Eastman Kodak, Syracuse lost Carrier, the air conditioning makers, even tiny Cortland, New York-- which hosts the New York Jets in pre-season -- lost a major business in Smith Corona and Binghamton no longer has IBM. Upstate New York has been in the thralls of a recession for decades and people have left the area in droves. Businesses along the Erie Canal have moved elsewhere --- first to the Sun Belt then out of the country -- and have not been replaced. This should be a major topic on talk radio and cable TV news but the barkers like talking about nothing instead of examining failed economic policies trotted out by both political parties which started with the Kennedy administration and continued with Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush.

The NFL owners break from sports socialism, which was first conceived by Branch Rickey in 1958 when he put together plans for the Continental Baseball League (and was co-opted by Lamar Hunt when he founded the American Football League in 1959 and "borrowed" by National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle shortly after he took office in 1960), has been shattered by new owners who joined the league in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Bills-Jaguars game will not be seen in the Buffalo area extending out 75 miles east, south, west and north of the city. Is it the beginning of the end game for the Bills franchise? Probably not, at least not yet. There are two negotiations that will take place before the end of the 2012 calendar year---the owners/players CBA and the Bills-Orchard Park lease. Wilson has nowhere to go as Los Angeles has no stadium that is NFL ready. Toronto, which is about 90 miles or Buffalo, might be an interesting landing place but so far, Toronto has not been all that interested in the Bills possibly because Wilson only plays one game in the city. But a four-four home game split might satisfy both Toronto and Buffalo corporate interests and keep the NFL team in Orchard Park. Buffalo isn’t the only city that has not sold out this year, the American economy is still battered --- both New York teams have not sold out either but because of NFL rules about seat sales, the New York teams have been on local TV ---- and the price for football games keeps increasing which is not a good formula in selling tickets in economically depressed areas like Buffalo, Detroit and other cities that have NFL teams.

Evan Weiner is an award winning author, radio-TV commentator, and speaker on the Business and Politics of Sports. He can be reached at evanjweiner@yahoo.com

Comments

  • HK 3 years ago

    You conveniently forget to mention this non-sellout game was the first such after a string of 26 sellouts. This for a team that hasn't sniffed the playoffs in 10 seasons. The NFL wishes it had 31 other cities as loyal as Buffalo. How's Jacksonville doing with 40,000 tickets sold and seats covered in tarps? How about Phoenix failing to sell out their home opener after going to the Super Bowl?

    There have been blackouts in a dozen NFL markets this year so why is the first blackout in Buffalo such an indictment? The Bills are a viable, well-supported, NFL franchise. They are in the middle of every ranking of profit and franchise value. They are hardly the basket case you make them out to be.

  • Greg 3 years ago

    It would be nice if you actually researched the FACTS before writing articles like this.

    FACT:

    In 2009, the Bills had the 10th HIGHEST home attendance average out of 32 NFL teams according to ESPN.

    http://espn.go.com/nfl/attendance/_/year/2009

    The Bills averaged more ticket sales per game than San Francisco, Indianapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Minnesota... and NEW ENGLAND..... and yet you use New England as an example of one of the "Big Boys"?

    The Bills sell more home tickets per season than the Patriots do.

    What more needs to be said?

    Perhaps next time you could do some research before publishing such misleading articles.

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