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IT'S THE LUXURY SEATS PLAYERS NEED TO BUY TO HELP KEEP THE BILLS

I DON'T WANT to get into a spitting match with anybody, particularly anybody who weighs 275 pounds. But some Buffalo Bills players are grumbling about a column that appeared here last week.

The point of the piece -- and, admittedly, it should have been clearer -- was that it'd be nice if our millionaire athletes kicked in on a luxury suite or a block of 40 or 50 club seats to help keep the team in town. It'd be a show of support for the fans who support them on Sunday and pay part of their salaries.

For those who've been asleep the past year, Ralph Wilson is free to move his team if $11 million in luxury seats -- that means suites or club seats -- aren't sold by December 1. The clock is ticking, and we're more than $600,000 shy. Wilson has said close won't be good enough. Maybe he's posturing in order to squeeze out every last dollar, but you never know.

Various players and ex-players, reacting to the column, said that they have blocks of tickets they donate to charity, or have purchased several club seats.

I think it's great that Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas, Ted Washington and others donate seats every game to kids. It shows that a lot of players have a sensibility that goes beyond the football field. Every one of them deserves a pat on the back.

But that's not what I was talking about.

We're not talking about season tickets or a block of general admission seats, because they don't count one penny toward the $11 million goal. This is all about luxury seats, which are either the suites or club seats. That's the only revenue team owners don't have to share with other owners, that's what they covet, that's what Wilson wants $11 million of.

And we're not talking about players taking a few club seats so their families have a place to sit on Sundays. That's great, it helps the cause a bit, but it's not coming up big in the way corporations and wealthy folks in the community are being asked to do.

We're talking about players -- individually or as a group -- stepping up and buying a suite (most of those remaining go for $34,000) or a block of 40 or 50 club seats (average cost: $1,000 apiece) as a show of community support and a major contribution to keeping the Bills in Buffalo. Forty or fifty seats, not three or four.

That's what we're talking about.

Coming up big.

"None of the players have (bought a block of at least 40 club seats) that I know of," said Scott Berchtold, the Bills' director of media relations. "A couple of guys have talked about the possibility of a luxury suite, it's in the discussion stage."

As things stand, the community is being held hostage. I don't like it any better than anybody else. In city after city, millionaire NFL team owners have held a gun to the communal head: Build me luxury seats (and then buy them), or I'll take my team elsewhere.

I've railed about how Congress or the courts need to step in and stop what amounts to legalized extortion. But until something changes, communities have to pay the price to keep a team. The price here is $11 million. That's the deal.

You're either in or out.

Corporations and rich folks are prime targets of the luxury-seat drive. CEOs are being pressed to buy a luxury suite, or a second suite, or a third. Among the wealthiest people around here are Bills' players. A few of them make about $5 million a year. That's more than eight of the area's 20 largest publicly held corporations cleared in profit last year.

Maybe the players don't like being put on the spot, but that's the deal for the rest of us. We've all been asked the same question: How much is it worth to me to keep this team in town? Some fans traded season tickets for more expensive (and more distant) club seats, in order to be counted toward the $11 million. Other folks who hadn't bought a ticket in years kicked in for club seats, to do their part to keep the team.

It wouldn't be that hard for players to step up. With a team payroll of $60 million, the average player salary is about a million bucks. If 10 or 12 guys kick in $4,000 apiece, it buys a luxury suite or a block of 50 club seats. That $4,000 is the rough equivalent of $200 for the guy who makes $50,000 a year.

It'd be a nice gesture and a major investment into keeping the team in town.

Although most players only live here six months out of the year, they're still part-time citizens. And every player benefits from the uncommon fan support here. The "12th man" is the difference in at least a game or two. That game or two can be the difference between players collecting a playoff check or not.

Yes, there are players who visit classrooms and donate blocks of tickets to charity and take the extra step. Anybody who gives of their money or time, whether it's a millionaire athlete or a $25,000-a-year secretary, deserves praise.

The point is this luxury-seat drive is a different ballgame. Season tickets and general-admission seats don't count. The only thing that counts in the $11 million push is luxury suites and club seats.

The clock is ticking. It'd be nice if some of our millionaire athletes stepped up in a big way. Showed they care that the team stays here.

That's all I'm saying.

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