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Blackout leads to ticket chaos Too many fans, too few windows

Tom and Lisa Sileo of Marietta, Ga., spent an hour and 40 minutes on a flight from Atlanta to Buffalo last week, excited about the prospect of attending the Bills-Dolphins game Sunday.

Then they spent two hours, from 12:15 to 2:15 p.m. Sunday, standing in line at the ticket window waiting to pick up their will-call tickets.

So they didn't get inside Ralph Wilson Stadium until two minutes remained in the first half.

Spending more time in line than he did on his flight from Atlanta left Tom Sileo aggravated and furious Monday.

"I've been to a lot of sporting events, and I've never seen anything like that," he said. "This was unacceptable."

Sileo, 27, said hundreds of people were stuck in the slow-moving line.

The problem, he and others claimed, was exacerbated by a lack of open ticket windows; by a lack of ropes or barriers; by misinformation about which windows were open; by a lack of security officers; by plenty of pushing and shoving in the line; and by dozens of fans who cut in the line from the side.

Angry fans and Bills officials had vastly different accounts of the number of open ticket windows. The fans saw only a handful, while the Bills said there were 10 open windows.

But there's no question that some people waited in line for at least two hours.

Sileo fared better than Steve Siara, 27, of New Providence, N.J., who drove here from New Jersey to see the game. He got in line between 10:15 and 10:30 a.m., he said, and drove away when he hadn't gotten his will-call tickets by about 2 p.m.

"I've been to [National Football League] games all over the country, and it was the worst experience I've ever had," Siara said. "How does an NFL team not expect to have a big crowd? This is such a big rivalry."

"I would never go to a Buffalo Bills game again because of that experience," he added.

The Bills apologized Monday for the ticket window mess, as team officials huddled to devise a solution to the game-day rush.

"This morning and this afternoon, we're taking a look at what we can do to expedite that, to make it a quicker process," Scott Berchtold, vice president for communications, said Monday. "We want to see how we can do a better job."

The team already has made one change, following Sunday's problems. People buying tickets online will be asked to print their tickets on their own computer, rather than pick them up at will-call.

The Bills pride themselves on their fan-friendly atmosphere, and they clearly had egg on their faces after the ticket window snafu.

"Obviously, we apologize for any inconvenience that caused our fans," Berchtold said.

The overloaded ticket lines were caused, in part, by the almost unprecedented last-minute ticket-selling frenzy related to the failure to lift the TV blackout of the game. Team officials also have cited Sunday's late-arriving crowd; perhaps because of the rain, fans came later, and the crowd was slowed by snarled traffic near the stadium.

"Unfortunately, when you have that much volume that close to the game, there's not much you can do," said David Wheat, vice president of business operations and ticketing. "We did the best we could."

Bills officials determined that 23,000 fans, almost one-third of the crowd, entered the stadium after Sunday's kickoff.

The Bills, while taking some heat about the TV blackout of Sunday's game, claim that the blackout worked, as the team sold 2,989 tickets in the 48 hours leading up to kickoff. That included between 1,500 and 1,700 tickets sold at the stadium before -- and after -- Sunday's kickoff.

"To sell 1,500 to 1,700 tickets at game time, that's a lot of tickets to sell," Berchtold said. "We didn't have this [last-minute demand] for the Jacksonville game, and we hadn't had that kind of rush for a blacked-out game for a number of years."

With 18,800 tickets remaining for the Bills' Christmas Eve game against the Tennessee Titans, team officials conceded late Monday that it will be almost impossible to sell that many seats in time to lift the television blackout by 1 p.m. Thursday.

Last week, with about 4,000 seats still remaining, the Bills got the blackout deadline extended to 1 p.m. Friday, as team officials tried to put together a deal for one corporate partner and two television stations to buy the remaining seats.

After that deal fell apart at about noon Friday, and people realized the game wouldn't be televised, the Bills sold almost 75 percent of their 4,000 available tickets before game time.

"I think it's a good indication that the blackout works," Berchtold said. "It's in place for a good reason, that you want as many fans in the stands as you can. That's the game-day experience."

The looming blackout of the team's final home game of the season will mean that the Bills have failed to sell out their last four home games.

"We know the capacity of our facility," said Russell Brandon, a Bills executive vice president. "Our [average] ticket price is the lowest in the league. It's up to us to sell out the game."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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