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Optimism building in Bills country; 40,000 season tickets sold three months before opener

The positive buzz about the Buffalo Bills that's sweeping through Western New York this offseason has started to pay off at the box office.

The Bills, mired in a dozen-year playoff drought, have reversed their recent slide in season-ticket sales, as the team already passed last year's total of 37,355.

But team officials say they still have a long way to go to match the lofty season-ticket figures of more than 55,000 from 2008 and 2009.

With three months remaining until the regular-season home opener Sept. 16, the team recently passed the 40,000 mark in season tickets, according to Bills chief executive officer Russ Brandon.

No matter how many more season tickets are sold in the next three months, the team will have reversed the steep and troubling decline from the last few years, from a recent high of 56,011 in 2008 down to 37,355 last season. That's a loss of 33 percent in just three years.

"We're pleased where we're headed, but we have a long way to go to reach the season-ticket figures from the late 2000s," Brandon said.

Brandon admits that the team hoped for a little bit more of a bump so far in season-ticket numbers.

"With the offseason we've had, we were hoping we'd be a little further along with our season tickets, but overall we're pleased with the progress we've made," he said in a lengthy phone interview.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," he added. "We continue to have a challenge to move that needle [on season tickets]."

Can the team surpass the 2010 season-ticket figure of 43,925?

"It's a realistic goal," he said. "The way the demand has percolated, we think we have a fairly good chance to pass it, but we have to keep rolling up our sleeves."

So the Bills' challenge now seems to be on building up their season-ticket base in the next few years, to reach what's considered their long-term benchmark.

"We feel this market is a solid, 50,000-seat market when the arrows are pointed in the proper direction," Brandon told The Buffalo News in April. "We are a believer that sold-out buildings drive all your other business platforms."

That includes sponsorships, premium-seat sales, advertising and merchandise sales.

The 50,000 season-ticket mark is key because the team knows that December home games are traditionally difficult to sell out, even when the team's playing well. They're much tougher if the team's out of playoff contention.

Privately, team officials believe that the National Football League hasn't done the Bills any favors with this season's schedule. For the second year in a row, the team has three December home games.

Outside observers have pointed out that this year's December schedule is tough, with games here against Jacksonville and St. Louis -- neither one a natural rival inspiring a big box-office rush -- and a late Dec. 30 date with the New York Jets.

While holding back thousands of seats for possible season-ticket sales, the Bills have announced individual-game sellouts for their first two regular-season home games, Sept. 16 against Kansas City and Sept. 30 against New England.

Following the opening of group sales last weekend, the team says a "few thousand" individual-game tickets remain for the third home game, Oct. 21 against Tennessee.

While team officials sound optimistic about selling out that game and the Nov. 15 Thursday night game against Miami, the challenge will be to fill the stadium for the three December games -- unless the team is in solid playoff contention.

The reasons for the fans' optimism this offseason are obvious, starting with the free-agent signings of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, the presumably strong 2012 draft class and the sense that the Bills are stocking the roster with quality depth at almost every position.

The Bills, like other National Football League teams, had another reason to expect an uptick in season-ticket sales even before free agency and the draft. Last offseason was a dormant one for selling tickets, thanks to the lockout that lasted almost 4 1/2 months, before ending in late July.

With fans frustrated yet again following a 6-10 record last season, the team began reshaping its roster in March, with the signings of Williams, the key defensive player on the market, and then Anderson. The team also retained some of its own free agents and extended the contracts of other top players.

"I think our fans feel much more optimistic about our team this season, and some of that optimism is reflected in our increase in season-ticket sales," Brandon said. "The challenge now is to continue to move our season-ticket number to a stronger position."

Brandon has insisted that the aggressive offseason signings weren't simply a response to the recent slide in season-ticket sales.

But there's no denying the link between beefing up the roster and then selling tickets.

Following the Mario Williams signing in March, the Bills sold 1,650 new season tickets over the next three business days. That was more than the 1,500 sold on the first three days after the team acquired quarterback Drew Bledsoe in April 2002.

Brandon, along with his marketing and sales teams, will be pushing hard throughout the rest of the offseason. "The goal is to sell every seat in the building," he said. "We're never satisfied until that is achieved."

email: gwarner@buffnews.com