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Bills' bid to squish fish won't be on TV Game vs. Dolphins is third in a row to be blacked out

Stay-at-home Buffalo Bills fans will be in the dark once again on Sunday.

The Bills' game against their arch rival, the Miami Dolphins, did not sell out in time for the local television blackout to be lifted.

It's the third home game this year -- and the third straight -- that will not be shown on local television. That's the most games that have been blacked out in five years, since 2001. This is the first time the Miami game has been blacked out since 1987.

There still were about 4,000 seats available Friday.

Bills fans are in a tiny minority in the NFL in terms of getting blacked out.

Out of 224 NFL games through this weekend, only five in the entire league have not been shown on local television stations. The only other two were in Oakland.

"It's disappointing," said Russ Brandon, Bills executive vice president of business operations. "Our goal is to sell out each and every game.

"We've had a strong history of sellouts, and that's a great tribute to our region and all of our fans. We've got to continue to find ways to sell out our tickets."

The expectation that most every Bills game will be on TV is only a recent phenomenon.

The Bills sold out 27 of 28 games up until their Nov. 26 game against Jacksonville. Since 2000, just 11 of 55 Bills' home games (20 percent) have been blacked out. That's despite the fact the Bills entered this season with a 39-57 record this decade, and they're one of only two AFC teams to not make the playoffs in the past six years.

>Why no sellouts?

Contrast those numbers with the decade of the 1990s, when the Bills went to four Super Bowls and were the second-winningest franchise in the NFL. Contrary to popular belief, blackouts were fairly common in the '90s. Out of 80 home games, 33 were blacked out, or 42 percent.

"It's pretty amazing the sellouts they've had with the team they've put on the field the last five years," acknowledged William K. Heussler, treasurer and past president of the Monday Quarterback Club. "They've had a pretty good marketing plan this decade."

Why are Buffalo and Oakland the only non-sellout league cities this year?

Selling tickets is not much of an issue in most NFL markets. Roughly 20 of the 32 teams in the league have waiting lists for season-ticket sales. The Bills are the third-smallest market in the league, behind only Green Bay and Jacksonville.

Three other teams that traditionally have trouble selling out have different circumstances this year. Arizona opened a new, $455 million stadium. New Orleans sold out its season due to the post-Katrina recovery effort. And Jacksonville got the league to allow it to put tarps over 9,713 upper-deck and end-zone seats in its stadium, reducing capacity from 76,877 to 67,164.

Two other factors have made it tougher for the Bills to sell out this year.

One is season ticket sales dropped from just over 47,000 to about 43,800 in the aftermath of last season's 5-11 finish. That's still pretty good by Buffalo standards. It's higher than any other season since 1994. But if the season-ticket total was at last year's level, at least two of the past three games would have been sold out.

Second, the Bills' schedule includes four of the last six games at home, after Thanksgiving, for the first time in the team's 47-year history. The Bills like more home games earlier in the year, since it's a little harder to sell tickets for December games. It's also harder to get fans from Rochester and Syracuse to come to potentially bad-weather games.

"You become a very central market instead of a regional market this time of year," Brandon acknowledged.

>Possible punishment

No one in the Bills' organization will say it, but there's a perception within the team that the league gave the Bills a "bad-weather schedule" as a result of owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. voting against the league's collective bargaining agreement with its players in March.

It could be argued, conversely, that a schedule back-loaded with home games is good from a competitive standpoint. The Bills have a perceived weather advantage late in the season, and good teams like to play at home during the playoff stretch run in December.

When the available ticket total for a game drops to about 2,000, the local television station often buys up the remaining tickets to get the benefit of showing the Bills game.

The Bills worked to get a group of business sponsors together to buy up the remaining 4,000 seats Friday. A deal was thought to be in place Friday, but the blackout news came shortly after 3 p.m. According to a company that is a Bills sponsor, Channel 4, which would televise the game, opted not to join the deal to buy tickets. A Channel 4 spokesman did not return phone calls Friday afternoon.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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