Talk about throwing a bucket of ice water on an otherwise upbeat offseason for the Bills.
It started so well for Buffalo, beginning with the signing of defensive end Mario Williams, merely the most coveted free agent available. Then came the addition of pass rush specialist Mark Anderson. And, finally, that interesting acquisition of enigmatic backup quarterback Vince Young.
It didn’t end there.
The Bills conjured a seemingly solid draft, then signed all nine picks without the hint of a problem.
And the result was an immediate uptick in season ticket sales to excited fans.
But the optimism took a bit of a blow late last week.
That’s when it was announced the Bills were one of three teams — reportedly, the Colts and Chargers are the others — opting out of a new National Football League policy allowing the lifting of television blackouts if 85 percent of non-premium seats are sold.
The revelation surprised and infuriated many Buffalo fans for whom TV blackouts have become a hot-button issue.
Average price for Bills’ non premium tickets is under $60 — lowest in the league — but the figure is somewhat offset by the fact that although Buffalo is the second smallest NFL television market, after Green Bay, it plays in the league’s seventh largest stadium (a shade under 74,000), behind only Washington, Dallas, the New Meadowlands, Denver, Miami and Kansas City.
The real problem, of course, is that Buffalo hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999 and in the ensuing dozen seasons has produced only one winning campaign.
That lack of on field success combined with inclement December weather in Orchard Park has translated to only 55 percent sellouts after Dec. 1 since the Bills last playoff season compared to over 90 percent in games played at “The Ralph” before that date.
Hence the expectation of Buffalo’s participation in the NFL’s new blackout standard and the adverse reaction when the Bills opted out.
That tough sell was left to chief executive officer Russ Brandon who told the Buffalo News, “We are not going to participate in the (new policy).
“We are a volume based business and for us to be successful, we need to keep our ticket prices low and sell a greater number.”
Brandon offered three reasons for the Bills declining to participate in what’s called the relaxed manifest rule.
First, he pointed out that of the last six blacked out home games, only one reached the 85 percent threshold ... meaning at least 51,000 of the 60,000 non-premium seats at “The Ralph” were sold.
Second, there’s a financial penalty for participants in the policy as, a higher share of gate receipts must be paid into an NFL revenue pool which could translate into increased ticket prices in Buffalo.
And, finally, there was concern that adopting the policy would have threatened the season ticket base.
As Brandon told the News, “As a small market franchise, we need people in the building ... as much in December as we do in September.”
Teams must adopt the policy for the season but can choose a threshold from 85 percent on up.
Still, the Bills’ decision has alienated a large percentage of fans who point out they subsidize stadium upgrades through taxes, yet still can’t watch home games on TV unless they’re sold out.
There’s also the argument that many elderly and physically infirm members of the fanbase are also penalized, though it’s a contention that has little traction.
As a Bills employee once told me, “You always hear, as it relates to the blackout rule, ‘What about the shut ins?’ But what percentage is that of our fans?
“You could argue that there are more season ticket holders than there are fans who can’t get out to the games and we have a responsibility to those who have made a financial commitment to support the team.”
As Brandon explained about the Bills opting out of the policy, “You need to look at it from a factual perspective ... and the facts are simple. This rule would not have affected the blackouts (except one, the last three seasons).
“It’s a business decision aimed at preserving the integrity of our most loyal customers, our season ticket holders.”
And, indeed, many of them feel that non-attending fans shouldn’t benefit from their investment.
On the face, though, it’s still easy to be critical of the Bills’ decision, given the continued high degree of fan loyalty through the NFL’s longest live playoff drought (tied with Detroit).
And while Brandon makes some reasonable points, his mixed review sales pitch is ill-timed as the team is in the process of seeking nearly a quarter-billion dollar tax payer subsidy for stadium improvements.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)