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Bills on track to sell out home games Fans buying despite fears for team's future

Despite the community's continuing fears that the Buffalo Bills could be headed out of town after owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. passes from the scene, Bills fans are embracing the team at the box office.

There are no individual tickets left for the first four home games this season.

Two other games, against New England and Cincinnati, have just a couple hundred and about 2,500 seats available, respectively.

And the last two games, against Miami and the New York Giants, are both within 10,000 tickets of selling out.

The Bills also expect to meet -- and possibly exceed -- their 2005 total of 47,256 season tickets, their highest season-ticket figure since 1995.

The bottom line?

"We feel very confident that we will sell out all eight of our regular season games," said Russ Brandon, the team's executive vice president of business operations.

The Bills' brisk business also extends to their premium seats. The team has sold all but five of its 164 suites, all but about 280 of its 6,878 outdoor club seats and roughly 75 to 80 percent of its 1,800 indoor club seats, according to figures provided by the Bills.

"It's another statement for the community, another statement for Bills fans throughout Western New York and Southern Ontario that they're excited about this upcoming season and where we've come as an organization," Brandon said.

The team's box-office popularity seems all the more surprising given several obstacles the Bills faced in marketing their product this off-season:

Wilson's comments, as reported in The Buffalo News on June 17, that he will not leave the team to his family and that it will be sold after his death.

Those comments have increased the fears that the Bills could be headed elsewhere after Wilson's death.

The fact that the Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999.

The off-season losses of many of the team's most marketable stars, led by Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher-Baker and Nate Clements.

Brandon was asked to explain the brisk demand for tickets, including the sale of 15,000 seats Saturday, when individual game tickets first went on sale.

"I think it's a combination of many factors -- the excitement entering the season with a team that had a very strong second half last season coupled with a lot of emerging talent and an excellent home schedule," Brandon said. "That's been very compelling to our fans."

Brandon declined to talk about what the expected season sellout means for the future of the franchise here. But he did address the importance of selling out both the regular and premium seats in the stadium.

"A sold-out building drives all of our business platforms, most notably our sponsorship model," he said.

Before anyone gets too giddy about the hot ticket demand, some local business leaders said that the long-term viability of the franchise requires that the team sell out -- or come very close to selling out -- its entire inventory of seats.

Only then would a prospective new owner consider buying the Bills -- and keeping them here.

"It's exciting that they're selling tickets at a good rate," M&T Bank President Mark J. Czarnecki said. "But the economics are changing for the league, and we're always going to have to work hard to keep the team here."

Business leaders have said that even annual sellouts may not guarantee the team's staying here. Once a prospective owner starts offering hundreds of millions of dollars for a National Football League team, a sold-out Ralph Wilson Stadium may not be enough.

But it would be a huge first step.

"One of the ways the marketplace can demonstrate to the NFL that the franchise is important is by supporting the team," Czarnecki said.

Sellouts are required, business leaders say, because of the team's well-documented insistence that it cannot charge anywhere near the prices of the NFL's largest and richest markets.

"We are a volume business because of our price points," Brandon said. "In [virtually] every aspect of our business, we are below market price, compared to our competitors in the National Football League."

Heading into training camp, which starts July 26, the Bills are already within a couple hundred single seats of selling out the New England game, which will become the fifth sold-out game. Brandon said that's the largest number of sold-out games heading into training camp in the last 10 years.

Some individual game tickets have been held out, as the Bills seek to bump up their season-ticket totals.

The Bills have their sights on matching -- and exceeding -- the 2005 total of season tickets sold. Last year, the team sold 43,187, more than 4,000 tickets fewer than the 2005 season.

"Our ultimate goal is [to sell] 50,000 season tickets, but that might be a stretch to reach this season," Brandon said.

Demand clearly breeds more demand. Suddenly, the Cincinnati game on Nov. 4 has become a hot ticket, with five other games virtually sold out. And some fans wanting to make sure they can see the Monday night game with Dallas on Oct. 8 could be lured into buying season tickets, knowing that a sold-out season will make it easier to unload any games they don't want to attend.

Some business leaders attribute much of the stoked up demand to the efforts of Brandon and his staff.

"I think they have done a terrific job of regionalizing the franchise so that Rochester and Southern Ontario are a big part of the marketplace," Czarnecki said. "That was [Brandon's] intent -- to broaden the franchise -- and he's done a great job of that."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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