Where do you begin when trying to explain why the Buffalo Bills are selling more season tickets now than they did when they were a perennial Super Bowl contender?
Where do you start in finding the reason the Bills actually plan to put a first-ever cap on season-ticket sales and that all but one of their regular-season games at Ralph Wilson Stadium are sold out three months before the schedule even begins?
The Pegulas? Rex Ryan? A true belief that, despite not knowing the identity of its starting quarterback, the team is going to finally end a 15-year playoff drought?
What’s the answer?
“The team on the field hasn’t made the playoffs in the last 15 years and that is difficult for anyone who is involved in this organization in any department,” Bills president Russ Brandon said Monday after announcing that, with a current season-tickets sales count well above 57,500, the club has shattered the 1992 record of 57,132. “But it goes back to our fans and the loyalty they have shown, not just this year.
“We are sitting here talking about a record and that’s great, but I am talking about the loyalty our fans have provided the entire time we have been on board trying to drive this business, obviously. It is an incredible testament to them. And I know that Rex” Ryan “and Doug Whaley and everyone in the football department is going to do everything to try and put us over the hump.”
Previous members of the Bills’ football department have made the same effort, only to fall short. Yet, fan loyalty has seemingly never wavered. At least, not during the many lean years that have followed the Bills’ last playoff appearance after the 1999 season.
Brandon noted that the Bills thought they were going to break the season-tickets mark in 2008, when they wound up selling 56,011. He also pointed out that, over the last 17 years, the Bills’ average season-tickets sales has been 42,944.
“So it is a pretty good foundation for the inventory we have in the market,” he said.
Hope has always been a big seller for the Buffalo faithful.
And that inventory to which Brandon referred is getting thinner by the day, despite an average of a six percent increase in ticket prices.
The Bills have no more individual tickets available for seven of their eight regular-season home games. And the ones available for the eighth, the Jan. 3 season-finale against the New York Jets, are limited.
Season tickets can be purchased for all games, but the Bills intend to stop selling those once they reach 60,000, which seems likely at the present pace. The reason for the cap, Brandon said, is to make sure the team meets NFL requirements to hold back enough to distribute to visiting teams and to have available for other distribution channels, such as the television networks broadcasting the games.
The Bills’ luxury suites are “pretty much in sold-out status,” Brandon said.
Anyone looking to purchase tickets on an individual basis had better be prepared to shell out plenty of money in the secondary market. For instance, as of late Monday afternoon, tickets on StubHub! for the Sept. 13 season-opener against Indianapolis ranged from $120 for a seat in the upper deck to $526 for a sideline seat in the lower bowl.
Beyond loyalty, there are other reasons Bills ticket sales have been so robust, starting with the “Pegula Factor.” Once Terry and Kim bought the team last October, that put to rest the long-held fears of the team being sold to an entity – such as an ownership group from Toronto – that would move it from Western New York.
The fan base no longer feels such angst. Additionally, it generally believes that the Pegulas, based on the NFL-leading $91 million in guaranteed money spent on players during the offseason, are willing to do whatever is necessary to build a winner.
“I think it is a combination of everything, but the foundation of where we are today squarely is pointed at the Pegulas’ buying the franchise,” Brandon said. “That we have been living with the fact of keeping this team viable in Western New York for the last 18 years has been our number one focus as a business and to see where we are today is obviously humbling for all of us that have been involved in it. Everything starts and stops with the ownership and the stability the Pegulas have provided us.”
The “Rex Effect” is another huge factor. There isn’t another coach in the NFL – or, perhaps, in all of sports – who does a better job of selling himself or his team.
Ryan’s upbeat, bold approach and folksy manner made an instant connection with Bills fans. And it only seems to be getting stronger.
“I think people feel pretty good about that and the excitement about what we are doing personnel wise, what we are doing coaching wise,” Brandon said. “And I think all that plays a factor in it.”
Brandon and several other Bills front-office executives spent last week in London to survey the team’s hotel and practice facility, as well as Wembley Stadium, for the Oct. 25 game they are scheduled to play there against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Brandon said even that game is attracting strong interest from Bills fans in the U.S.
“It is going to be an outstanding opportunity,” Brandon said. “I think our team will travel well as a fan base. Meeting with the NFL UK office, they had a lot of calls from Western New York. I think we will bring a little of Buffalo to the UK next October. It is going to be a lot of fun.”