COMMENTARY | Since 1961, the NFL has had a blackout policy that prevents team's home games from being shown on TV stations that broadcast within a 75-mile radius of the team's stadium if the game is not sold out 72 hours before kickoff. Although last year the NFL announced a change that would allow teams to elect to broadcast games locally when 85% of tickets are sold, the Buffalo Bills declined to exercise this option because doing so would have required a payment to the league's anti-blackout revenue pool.
Considering that the Bills are owners of the longest playoff drought in the NFL, having not made the postseason since 1999, late season blackouts have become par for the course in recent years. Due to the "75-mile signal radius" rule, fans as far east as Syracuse have thus been prevented from seeing many games when the weather turned as bad as the team and keeps fans away from Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Although it may have been coincidental, the 2013 NFL schedule looks like it was drafted to help the Bills sell as many tickets as possible, and accordingly avoid the late season blackouts. The team has three home games scheduled in fair-weather September and just two in Orchard Park after November 3rd (with a third "home" game being played in Rogers Centre in Toronto). Bills CEO Russ Brandon recently went as far as to describe the schedule as "probably the best layout we've seen in [his] 17 years" in Buffalo from a fan standpoint.
At the same time, the product on the field is shaping up to be vastly improved from the struggling units of recent history. The team has a new coaching staff and new rookie quarterback, and promises to have a hard-nosed, exciting style of play that features a no huddle offense and a non-stop pass rush. The early returns are positive, as the Bills took the mighty New England Patriots to the wire in Week 1, losing 23-21 on a field goal with just nine seconds left to play.
Due to the combination of the fan-friendly schedule, and exciting football to be on display, it seemed inconceivable that the Bills could be blacked out, especially early in the season. That fate nearly came to pass however, as by Wednesday morning the Ralph remained around 1,600 ticket sales short of a sell-out for this weekend's Week 2 game against the Carolina Panthers. Luckily for Bills fans throughout Upstate New York, a late push led to the tickets being sold and the blackout being lifted before the Thursday afternoon cut-off time.
The fact that things even got so close to a blackout is completely unacceptable. Even if there was nothing else, the fact that Sunday is shaping up to be a beautiful day in Orchard Park is more than enough reason to head to the game. Things get even less acceptable when you consider the circumstances surrounding the game on tap against the Panthers in Week 2.
For starters, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is one of the most exciting players in all of football. With unmatched athleticism at the quarterback position, Newton is currently one of the most must-see attractions in the entire game.
At the same time, there is plenty to get excited about watching the Bills this year. As displayed in Week 1, the team is shaping up to play an exciting brand of football that features players on both sides of the ball getting after it for four quarters. The style of both offense and defense presents the kind of approach that feeds off the momentum that a sold-out Ralph Wilson Stadium can bring and gives the crowd a lot to be loud about.
With this in mind, it is crucial that Bills fans in Upstate New York (and, for that matter, Southern Ontario and elsewhere), step it up and ensure that there are no blackouts in 2013. Now that the fans finally have the kind of exciting team they have wanted for years, the players deserve the best from the fans.
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