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Buffalo is a big contender as sports town City tied for 3rd in fan enthusiasm

As Buffalo basks in the glow of its 4-0 Bills and crows about the Sabres' chances this season, there's another reason for local sports fans to puff up their chests with pride.

A national survey -- yes, another one of those -- lists Buffalo as tied for third in the battle for the most rabid sports town in America.

The top five sports towns are Columbus, Ohio; Boston; Buffalo and Pittsburgh (tied); and Green Bay, Wis., according to Scarborough Sports Marketing, a sports fan research firm.

And when the survey lists the top 25 sports teams -- pro or college -- with the highest percentage of fans in their home market, the Bills finished 12th and the Sabres 25th. In fact, the Sabres' ranking was the highest for any team in the National Hockey League.

"What's unique about Buffalo is that you have two professional teams in the major leagues, both performing very strongly," said Howard Goldberg, senior vice president of Scarborough Sports Marketing. "And that takes place without a national championship."

At least one academic believes the survey may provide more than bragging rights for Buffalo fans and fodder for barroom and talk-radio discussions.

The survey also helps build the national reputation of Buffalo as a red-hot Bills town, at a time when many fear the Bills could be headed to Toronto or elsewhere after owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. passes from the scene.

"It basically forces the league to deal with Buffalo more straight-up than it otherwise would," said Ted Fay, a Cortland State College sports management professor.

"When you have a fan base like this, a league has to be extremely careful about an exit strategy," Fay said. "What is their strategy when they have a team that is highly popular and heavily supported? There is no dispute [about that support] here."

Buffalo also was one of only four cities with two teams in the survey's top 25, out of about 200 teams. The other cities with a pair of teams are Cleveland, Boston and Providence, R.I., (whose residents are enthusiastic fans of the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots).

The survey results are based on interviews with more than 220,000 adults in 81 top markets in the nation.

Bob Schwartz, one of the founding fathers of the online effort www.billsinbuffalo4ever.com, was impressed but not shocked by the survey.

"I think it's consistent with what we see and hear in this community every day," he said. "The Bills are Topic A [in football season]. This is a sports town. You almost can't separate the city from its teams."

The survey results are exactly the type of ammunition Schwartz seeks in making the case to keep the Bills in Buffalo forever.

"The more pressure we get as to the passion for the Bills, I think it can only help secure the team's long-term future in Western New York," he said.

The survey found that 63 percent of the adults in the Buffalo market are "avid sports fans," or people who consider themselves "very interested" in one of the local teams.

Columbus topped the list with 66 percent, aided by the rabid interest in the Ohio State Buckeyes football team, which tied for fifth among the most popular teams in their hometowns.

When it came to ranking the teams' popularity in their hometown markets, the survey listed the Bills as counting 66 percent of the region's adults as fans. The Sabres rounded out the top 25 with 59 percent.

The top five teams, according to the survey, are the Green Bay Packers (NFL), Pittsburgh Steelers (NFL), St. Louis Cardinals (MLB) and Indianapolis Colts (NFL), with Ohio State (NCAA football) and the Boston Red Sox (MLB) tied for fifth.

Why does Buffalo score so high in this survey?

In an area hurt by population and job loss, Buffalo clearly clings to its sports teams.

"What does Buffalo have to brag about?" Fay asked. "What do you hold on to that's near and dear? You really identify, almost super-identify, with the sports teams. What else are you going to latch on to that gives you so much pride?"

It's notable that New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego all are in the bottom quarter of the sports-town rankings.

"They're such megalopolises," Fay said of the biggest cities, "that there's no single or unifying factor that brings all New Yorkers together."

Scarborough Sports Marketing is a division of Scarborough Research, a joint venture between Arbitron Inc. and The Nielsen Co.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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