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Price hike will help Bills keep up

The increase in ticket prices for next year's Buffalo Bills games comes across, at first glance, as a wayward business decision. Bills fans are sour on a franchise that last played a postseason game following the '99 campaign. Attendance fell off precipitously at the end of last season, even as the team wedged its way into a semblance of playoff contention.

A clash with the surging Tennessee Titans and their Merlin of a rookie quarterback, Vince Young, wasn't enough to stir fan passion on Christmas Eve. Television blackouts became the rule down the stretch, enabling the Bills to lead the league in that dubious category.

And yet ticket prices are on the rise? So much, it would seem, for the principles of supply and demand.

But there's more to contemplate in assessing why Bills ticket prices are rising and whether the increase is justifiable, which it is, like it or not.

The NFL's salary cap soared from $85 million to $102.5 million between '05 and '06 and is expected to near $109 million for next season. Meanwhile, the proposed revenue-sharing plan among franchises, a lame formula that Bills owner Ralph Wilson has opposed with bold and vociferous ire, would negate but a small portion of the new financial burden thrust upon small-market teams who must up their payrolls to compete with the big boys for the best players on the market.

The NFL has gone the way of Major League Baseball in its revenue disparity, except in the NFL there are no farm systems to give a fighting chance to those who reside on the wrong side of the tracks. The Bills, at the moment almost $40 million under the anticipated '07 salary cap, are the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Yankees of Washington, Dallas and the other revenue Goliaths. Fan interest in Buffalo will remain stagnant unless the team improves, which necessitates hiking the payroll to secure better players, or to retain those who've entered free agency.

The Bills are in a quandary thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement. Unless Wilson spends beyond the current means of his franchise -- something no other owner does, and few even have to consider -- his club is more or less doomed to mediocrity. And that's where the increase in ticket prices, however modest, factors into the equation. The Bills have gauged that fans will accept spending a little bit more in pursuit of a better product, a fair request given the financial predicament the franchise is being dealt by the NFL.

Wilson takes a lot of hits in this town, and I can't figure it. He could have John Y. Browned this franchise long ago, stripped Buffalo of its NFL team, taken the money and run. Instead, he's remained fiercely loyal to the city, even as many of his fellow owners, his alleged business partners, unite to put the squeeze on small-market teams.

It's strange. NFL teams are cherished commodities and yet WNYers tend to regard theirs with an it-will-always-be-there nonchalance. Fans moan about the unfairness of the league's TV blackout policy, claiming it's wrong that Buffalo, despite its population, is home to one of the league's larger stadiums.

Well, here's a news flash. Capacity at Green Bay's Lambeau Field has increased from about 61,000 to almost 73,000 since 1995. The population of the Milwaukee metropolitan area is strikingly similar to Buffalo's. The weather's no better there than it is here, that's for sure. And yet the Packers have more than 40,000 names on their season-ticket waiting list, through good times and bad, while Bills fans lament that their own 74,000 seats are excessive.

Green Bay's a football town. Buffalo, dare we say it, is a town with a football team.


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