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Stadium salutes to military turn out to be ads

Remember all those poignant moments when Buffalo Bills fans applauded – and even rose from their Ralph Wilson Stadium seats – to salute local members of the armed forces for service to their country?

Many of those moments were sponsored by the Defense Department, and the money went straight to the Bills, according to NJ.com, a New Jersey-based website.

In other words, it was advertising, just like the in-stadium ads for Independent Health, M&T Bank, Toyota – or the Bills.

Figures released by the Defense Department, through NJ.com, show that the Bills and 13 other National Football League teams received such revenue over the last four seasons. The Bills took in $679,000, the third-highest amount.

Only the Atlanta Falcons, with $1,049,500, and the Baltimore Ravens, with $884,500, collected more advertising revenue from the Defense Department over the four-year period, according to those figures.

Service members and patriotism often are stars of the game day scene at Ralph Wilson Stadium, including soldiers being honored on the field, scoreboard tributes, flyovers, the use of oversized American flags and the distribution of free tickets to veterans’ groups.

It’s not clear which of those tributes are paid for by the Defense Department.

The NJ.com chart lists four such advertising payments to the Bills over the last four years: $29,000 from the Air Force in 2011, $250,000 from the Army/Army National Guard in both 2012 and 2013, and $150,000 from the same group last year.

On the Bills’ list of about 55 official partners, suppliers or providers on the team’s website, the New York National Guard is included as one of those partners.

No Bills official was available for direct comment on the issue Monday, but the organization did send out “team responses” to several questions from The Buffalo News.

“We have an advertising relationship with the New York National Guard that includes promotional elements and we continue to support various military and veteran support organizations,” the team stated. “We are fortunate to be in a position to highlight our military and thank our veterans for the sacrifices they have made and continue to make every day to ensure our freedom.”

Will all the publicity over the NJ.com report change the Bills’ practices on such advertising for 2015 and future years?

“No, our relationship with the National Guard is strong and we have always supported the military as best we can, regardless of any advertising relationship,” the team responded.

Reaction to the news from fans and military groups has been varied, and several people talked about this being a really tricky issue. Others think it’s pretty straightforward.

“This is a marketing and advertising recruitment tool that’s been used by the services for years,” said Fran McLaughlin, director of the Erie County Veterans Services Agency.

“Personally, I don’t have a problem with it,” he added. “I look at it as we’re honoring veterans.”

Matt Sabuda, president of the Buffalo Fan Alliance, has a slightly different view. He doesn’t have any problem with the Defense Department advertising at Bills games. He just wishes the team were more forthcoming about being paid for those ads.

“It’s an odd story, I think because it boils down to the lack of transparency,” he said.

“Sure, we see advertising on TV for the Army and the National Guard,” Sabuda added. “But when you’re in the stadium, because there’s no disclaimer, when people are participating in what seems like a community gesture to thank the troops, in reality they’re participating in a paid advertisement, which I don’t think any of us (realized).”

Fans generally want to thank members of the military for their service, and the fan base would like to think that the team would do the same, Sabuda said. “Then to find out that they’re being paid for that, it seems a little unseemly.”

One issue that has come up nationally is whether taxpayer money should be going to the Bills and the other highly profitable NFL teams.

The Bills addressed that point in their team response:

“We do not determine how the National Guard sets up their advertising strategies for recruitment, but we believe that we hit the target audience in a very cost-effective way.”

A closer look at the Defense Department statistics reported by NJ.com shows that 14 NFL teams were paid a total of $5.4 million in advertising from 2011 through 2014.

Besides the Bills, Falcons and Ravens, the other 11 teams were the Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.

Oddly enough, as some wags have asked, what was one of the 18 teams receiving no such advertising revenue?

The Patriots.

email: gwarner@buffnews.com

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