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FANS UPSET AS TV BLACKOUT AREA FOR BILLS HOME GAMES IS WIDENED

Come fall, Doug LaPlante said, there are only two things -- make that three things -- on the minds of most people in this tiny Yates County town.

"Football and deer season, they go together," LaPlante said after purchasing some beef jerky at the town's only store. "It's deer, football and beer."

Deer and beer still will be available in this Finger Lakes community. But football -- at least some of the televised games involving LaPlante's team of choice, the Buffalo Bills -- may not be.

The National Football League and the Bills have extended the team's television blackout into the Syracuse area, because the Syracuse television signal extends into central Monroe County, within 75 miles of Buffalo, the Bills say.

"Any signal that penetrates the 75-mile blackout area is blacked out," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello explained.

So any Bills home game that doesn't sell out 72 hours before kickoff will be blacked out in an area that now stretches past Syracuse.

That's not sitting too well with the people hanging out at the Valley Store in Italy, which is more than 75 miles from Buffalo, but still affected by the blackout.

LaPlante, 44, is definitely unhappy. Like most followers of pro football in this area, he's a Bills fan, but this move is testing his allegiance.

"I know nobody will come to Buffalo" to attend the blacked-out games, he said. "As far as Buffalo goes, they'll definitely lose some fans. Nobody's going to support a team they can't see when they're playing at home."

Actually, the Bills and the NFL aren't targeting LaPlante and his buddies who hang out at the Valley Store, the hub of activity in this hilly farm country known for its wineries.

Instead, they're concerned about the bars and homes in the Rochester area that use fancy antennas to bring in the blacked-out games from the Syracuse station.

"We're targeting the traffic that's moving from west to east," Bills treasurer Jeffrey C. Littmann said. "You've got bus service running from downtown Buffalo to east Rochester and its environs to watch the game."

What would Littmann tell the people at the Valley Store or anywhere else throughout central New York?

"We understand that they're upset," he replied. "But there's nothing more important that we can do to keep this franchise right here (in Buffalo). In a small market, we have to protect the gate (the game-day attendance). And the only way we know to do that is through the blackout rule."

But why has the policy been changed, when central New York viewers have been able to watch blacked-out Bills games for years?

"That's a difficult question," the NFL's Aiello said. "We knew there would be some backlash. In a year when the TV contracts are up, all the television procedures and policies are being looked at more closely . . . We felt this would be the way to go."

Don't try selling those arguments at the Valley Store. Along with talk about new zoning laws, the hubbub over the Bills has dominated the morning coffee klatch, according to the man behind the counter, Terry Ringer.

One of the things that really upset the crowd here was the loss of the blacked-out Bills games, coupled with the state's intent to spend $63.25 million to renovate the Bills' stadium in Orchard Park after this season.

"Some of the guys weren't sure if it was going to affect us," Ringer said. "If it's going to affect us, they're unhappy with it. It's their taxpayers' dollars involved."

These Yates County residents aren't the only ones befuddled by the blackout rule.

Consider this seeming injustice:

This fall, residents of Utica, about 185 miles from Buffalo, won't be able to see blacked-out games televised from Buffalo on CBS. But Bills fans in Hornell, a mere 75 miles from Buffalo, will be able to see those games.

That's how whacky and seemingly illogical the blackout policy can be. Understanding it is about as simple as deciphering the U.S. tax code. And some people interpret the rules differently.

Why would Utica, but not Hornell, be blacked out for CBS games in Buffalo? The network carrying a game depends on the visiting team. When the team visiting the Bills is from the AFC, the game will be on CBS. If the visitors are from the NFC, the game will be on Fox. Six of the Bills' home games are on CBS and two are on Fox.

Utica, which has no CBS affiliate, relies on the CBS station in Syracuse, which will not be able to televise blacked-out games because its signal penetrates within 75 miles of Buffalo.

Hornell residents, on a good day anyway, can watch the Binghamton CBS affiliate, whose signal technically doesn't penetrate within 75 miles of Buffalo.

Is that fair?

"There are some policies that may not seem fair or equitable to the fans, but from the league's standpoint, we have to have a consistent policy that applies to all 30 teams," said Joe Ferreira, the NFL's director of broadcasting.

"That's an unintended consequence that really can't be avoided," Littmann added.

Some Syracuse television officials and the Bills have interpreted the blackout rule differently.

To officials at WTVH, the CBS affiliate in Syracuse, the blackout extension is based on a 22-square-mile sliver in western Yates County, which is within the Syracuse television market but also within 75 miles of Buffalo.

"I think it's a shame that we're held hostage by the NFL and the Bills," said Gary Wordlaw, the station's president and general manager. "It's an ironic twist of fate that a 22-square-mile area is going to prohibit hundreds of thousands of people from seeing the games."

That's absolutely untrue, Littmann countered.

"How many people within our 75-mile exclusionary zone can get an adequate signal from Syracuse?" Littmann asked. "Over 300,000 people through rooftop antennas can pull in that signal."

Central New Yorkers believe the move will cost the Bills some fans.

Pete Douglas, a 35-year-old nurseryman in the Italy area, believes it's just a case of NFL owners once again being greedy.

"Unless you get to see the team you like, you look for other things to take their place," he said.

Or as LaPlante said, "If we can't see it, we won't support it."

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