For many Buffalo sports fans, not being able to watch Sunday's Bills game on television is a blessing.
But for the team's most diehard supporters – and other gluttons for punishment – the reality that this weekend's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars will be blacked out on local TV feels like a curse.
The National Football League is running a prevent defense to make sure fans in a blacked-out market can't watch the home team on TV, online or anywhere else – whether you're at home or in a bar, whether you have Dish Network or the NFL Sunday Ticket.
Because Sunday's game at Ralph Wilson Stadium didn't sell out in time, fans across Western and Central New York, northwestern Pennsylvania and Southern Ontario can't watch the reeling, 4-7 Bills try to climb one step closer to respectability.
"Unless you go to the game," Dan Masonson, a league spokesman, said in an interview.
This is the Bills' first blackout of the season, in their fifth home game, after the team's last three home games in 2011 were blacked out.
Two other games on the NFL slate this weekend, in San Diego and Oakland, won't air on local TV, Masonson said. Counting these three blackouts, 12 games have been blacked out in 2012, or 6 percent of the games played this season.
The league's television contracts bar local stations from airing games in a team's home market if they don't sell out 72 hours before kickoff, and a Federal Communications Commission rule requires cable and satellite TV providers to uphold the local blackout.
"The blackout policy is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets, keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds and ensuring that we can continue to keep our games on free TV," Masonson said Friday.
But critics grumble that the league's blackout policy disproportionately hurts fans in Buffalo and other smaller markets and complain that it's unfair in today's economy to expect the public to fill NFL stadiums. The Sports Fan Coalition, which has a Buffalo chapter, and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, are among those arguing for ending the NFL's blackout policy.
It's harder to sell out games in Ralph Wilson Stadium late in the season, when the weather turns grim and the Bills typically aren't in the running for a playoff spot.
"It will be a difficult task," Bills CEO Russ Brandon, said last month, referring to the team's efforts to sell the remaining tickets to its last three games in Orchard Park. Bills spokesman Scott Berchtold this week referred questions about the blackout policy to the NFL.
How does the policy work? Generally speaking, the rule bars anyone within 75 miles of a team's home stadium from watching a game that isn't sold out.
And if the signal from a TV station in a nearby market can reach within that 75-mile radius, then that station can't broadcast the game, either.
This means Bills home games are blacked out in the Buffalo; Rochester; Syracuse; Erie, Pa.; Hamilton, Ont.; and Toronto TV markets, Masonson said.
It doesn't matter whether you use Dish Network, DirecTV, Verizon FiOS, Time Warner Cable or rabbit ears, according to the NFL. Subscribers to the NFL's Sunday Ticket package are out of luck, too, although Masonson pointed out that games broadcast on the local affiliate are always blacked out on Sunday Ticket.
NFL games for the most part aren't streamed live on the Internet, so that's not an option for fans here.
The "Sunday Night Football" games on NBC are streamed online, Masonson said, but if any of those games don't sell out, the league would use geographic-targeting technology to block the feed in the home market.
How far would a Bills fan have to travel to legally watch Sunday's game?
The CBS affiliates in Elmira, Binghamton and Watertown are carrying the game, The News confirmed.
The signal from WENY-TV, based outside Elmira, reaches as far west as Hornell, in Steuben County, and some of the communities near Alfred University, in Allegany County, according to a station employee. Both are about an hour and 50 minutes from downtown Buffalo.
There is one loophole. If you subscribe to the NFL RedZone service, which broadcasts every scoring play from every game, the league doesn't go to the trouble of blocking the action featuring blacked-out teams, Masonson said.
Further bad news: the Bills are likely to have two more blackouts this season, on Dec. 9 against St. Louis and Dec. 30 against the New York Jets, with thousands of tickets remaining for both of those home games.