Twice this season, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. rode to the rescue, agreeing to purchase the remaining tickets to a Bills home game, thus avoiding a local TV blackout.
But there apparently will be no such holiday gift for Sunday’s Bills-Miami Dolphins game, just three days before Christmas.
“The game will be blacked out,” Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon stated in a brief email Monday.
Sunday’s blackout will be only the second of the season throughout the National Football League, unless there are others this weekend. The only game blacked out has been the Cincinnati at San Diego game Dec. 1.
The reason for this week’s blackout here seems obvious. The team, according to Brandon, has some 16,000 tickets remaining for the Dolphins game, a tough sell in late December with the Bills already out of the playoff hunt.
All NFL teams have several options to ensure a sellout before the deadline, which comes 72 hours before kickoff.
A team can approach the local television affiliate, in this case WIVB-TV Channel 4, along with the team’s sponsors, advertisers and civic leaders, who might come together to sell the game out.
Any team also has the option to buy up any remaining tickets, at 34 cents on the dollar, enough to pay the visiting team’s share of the gate receipts.
That’s exactly what Wilson did for the Oct. 13 Cincinnati game. Three days before that game, the team had reported being 5,300 tickets short of a sellout.
Then last month, the team requested a one-day extension for the Nov. 17 Jets game before announcing that Wilson had agreed to buy any remaining tickets. The team reportedly had about 3,500 unsold tickets at that point.
But the remaining number of tickets this week is more than three times the number for either of those two games.
Not counting the Bills “home” game in Toronto against Atlanta on Dec. 1, which was televised here despite the presence of many unsold seats, the Bills had a tough time selling out three of its seven games in Ralph Wilson Stadium this season.
That’s not uncommon, though, for the Bills, a team that has missed the playoffs for 14 straight seasons.
Across the league, blackouts are down this season.
Through Monday night, the lone blackout, out of 224 games, amounts to less than one-half of one percent.
Brian McCarthy, NFL vice president of corporate communications, cited previous leaguewide blackout figures ranging from 25 to 50 percent during the late 1970s through the late 1990s.
There were 15 blackouts across the league last year, and 16 in 2011.
“We are on pace for a historic low number of blackouts since the policy was implemented 40 years ago,” McCarthy stated in an email. “While impacting very few games the past decade, the blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds.”
Before the 2012 season, the league did soften its rule somewhat, allowing the lifting of local blackouts if at least 85 percent of nonpremium seats were sold.
The Bills, though, opted out of that option.
“We are not going to participate in the relaxed-manifest rule,” Brandon told The Buffalo News at the time. “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 of tickets.”
The NFL might be more intent on avoiding blackouts this year, after a Federal Communications Commission official proposed eliminating a 40-year-old federal blackout rule that guided the league’s blackout policy. Critics of that proposal have pointed out, though, that the FCC governs TV rules and regulations, not NFL private business policy.