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ANXIETY LEVEL INCREASES AS SEAT SALES DEADLINE NEARS

The Buffalo Bills have no plans to move to Houston, Los Angeles, Toronto or any other city.

Sources inside and outside the organization insist they've heard about no specific talks with any city trying to lure the Bills from the only home the team has ever had.

And no city has emerged as a rumored future home for the Bills.

"We were free agents this (past) year," Bills treasurer Jeffrey C. Littmann said last week. "If Houston was our goal, or L.A. was our goal, or Cleveland was our goal, we'd be there already. We've already shown our commitment (to Buffalo) . . . the fact that we're still here."

Now the Bills want the fans to return that commitment.

Despite the lack of any relocation threats from the Bills, a sense of urgency surrounds the Bills' frantic efforts to reach the magic $11 million mark in luxury-box and club-seat sales for 1999.

Why?

"I don't believe Mr. Wilson wants to move the franchise out of Buffalo," said one source close to the situation. "But if we don't reach the $11 million goal, I can't say he won't pull the trigger."

In other words, there's always a hint of a risk, until the Bills commit to staying.

Unless some savior emerges with a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and that remains a possibility -- it appears the Bills will have a tough time reaching the $11 million goal by Dec. 1.

The bottom-line figure stood at about $10.4 million Friday.

Team officials have drawn the $11 million line in the sand. It's the figure the Bills want to reach by Dec. 1, to ensure that the full inventory of $12.5 million worth of suites and club seats would be sold by August 1999.

If the Bills aren't threatening to move, what trump card do they hold, in case the $11 million goal isn't reached in nine days?

They have the right to cancel the lease deal that would keep the team here at least through 2003. That lease deal also would trigger the release of $63.25 million in state funds to renovate the stadium in Orchard Park.

"If we don't get the $11 million, then the deal we made doesn't exist," Littmann explained. "We go back to square one."

That would create chaos, threatening the mammoth stadium renovation project that must be finished by next August.

"To try to reopen or renegotiate the terms of a complicated (lease) contract might very well put the franchise at risk," said Erland E. Kailbourne of Fleet Bank, chairman of the Business Backs the Bills Committee. "We can't afford to let that contract be reopened."

That's one reason for the current sense of urgency surrounding a sales effort inching ever closer to the $11 million mark.

Some members of the Business Backs the Bills Committee have argued that the worst-case scenario has to be conveyed to the public. In short, urgency and doomsday scenarios help sell club seats.

A couple of weeks ago, when club-seat sales were booming, reaching the $11 million goal was considered a done deal. In fact, there was even talk of bringing in Gov. Pataki and other dignitaries for an $11 million announcement, tentatively planned for late last week.

But then the sales effort smashed into another brick wall.

The Bills, of course, want to sell as many club seats and luxury boxes as they can. As of Friday, they had sold 5,456 out of 6,878 outdoor club seats, leaving about 1,400.

The $11 million figure has become an important symbolic goal, a commitment from an area whose economy owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. doesn't trust.

"We're asking for a vote of confidence," Littmann said.

The $11 million mark is considered a "low bar" for premium seating, compared to almost any other NFL franchise. If the Bills can't reach that figure by Dec. 1, the reasoning goes, then the long-term viability of the franchise remains in question.

Members of the business committee working with the Bills have another reason for wanting to reach the $11 million goal.

To these highly successful businessmen, getting close to the goal isn't good enough. They don't want to leave even the slightest loophole open for Wilson to consider moving the team.

But there are plenty of signs that the Bills plan to stay in Buffalo.

It's what they've said all along.

"Our only game plan is to make this (sales) plan work," Littmann said. "We do not have another game plan. But we can't afford to lose this game."

The Bills are moving forward with plans for next season in Buffalo.

Tuesday, bids were opened for the $63.25 million renovation project. And the Bills recently announced plans for current season-ticket holders to pick new seat assignments for next year; that process begins Dec. 5, four days after the deadline.

Six weeks ago, before outdoor club-seat sales took off, the Bills and the business committee said at least 5,000 of the 6,878 club seats had to be sold by Dec. 1. As of Friday, 5,456 had been sold, although the sales of indoor club seats have faltered.

Early last month, a business committee member said the sales effort needed to surpass $10.3 million -- a figure that was reached early last week.

Of course, one man, Wilson, holds all the cards, if the $11 million goal isn't reached.

Late last week, he expressed dismay up over the weak ticket sales for the remaining home games this year, starting with today's game with Indianapolis.

Still, those who know Wilson doubt he wants to move the team to another city. They point out that he already had that chance.

"We could have moved, but we didn't, because Ralph is a man of tradition and a man of commitment," Littmann said of his boss and good friend. "He wanted to give the fans who have supported this team all these years the chance to keep it."

Those who know Wilson can't see him sneaking the Bills out of town, although they believe he truly is bothered by the Western New York economy, the recent dip in season-ticket sales and the lukewarm fan response to some games.

"He's a handshake, look-you-in-the-eye guy," said one person who knows him. "He wants to keep the team here, but he also wants to reach the $11 million, as I would too."

Stadium tours will be held again Tuesday night, with former Bills receiver and special-teams ace Steve Tasker as guest host. The Bills also may stage another event for potential club-seat customers next Sunday, when the Bills are in New England.

But with $600,000 to go in premium sales, nobody expects the $11 million to be reached before Thanksgiving. Bills officials have gone back to research the fine print in the lease deal, which states that the Bills have until noon Dec. 1.

"This is clearly going down to the 12th hour with the 12th Man," Kailbourne said.

There's still speculation that some financial savior or saviors will emerge just before Dec. 1 to bring the total to $11 million. It should be noted, however, that if the figure stood at $10.8 million then, the gap would be $200,000 per year for five years, or $1 million.

"At this point in time, there is still not a white knight that has consented to ride in at the last minute," Kailbourne said.

While the Bills still intend to stay, their sales staff and the business committee are working late nights and early mornings -- some as many as 15 hours a day -- to make sure the team can't leave.

"The business committee is intensifying its calling activities," Kailbourne said. "Every club seat is important."

Even without any verbal threats from the Bills, nobody wants to take any chances.

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