Niagara Gazette

September 23, 2012

Fair-weather fans must stick out the season

COMMENTARY

By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette

ORCHARD PARK —  

I took a detour into Ralph Wilson Stadium last Sunday, circling out of the docile media parking area and strolling through the taligate party in the camper lot.

Without an ounce of alcohol in my blood, it felt like I had entered a Mad Max dystopia.

Grown men marinating in sweat and booze, wearing faded Zubaz and tattered jerseys with another man's name on the back, rejected my appearance in their shanty town.

I wore my Sunday best. They glared and blitzed insults.

“Nice tie, loser.”

“Gomez, your dad looks lost.”

“You know you’re at a Bills game right?”

I smiled and informed them I was there for work.

“Work this mother ...”

Unable to find my friends because they were too preoccupied by a man covering himself in condiments to answer their phones, I made my way back to friendlier confines in the press box.

As we passed through security, a fellow sporstwriter noted that during the Bills glory days, fans would start camping out in the lot on Wednesday and proceed with the debauchery all the way up until kickoff.

As I sat in my seat and watched the stadium fill up, the drunks filing in last, I shook my head at the realization that this particular group of fans were so crucial to the survival of the Buffalo Bills

With all the fretting these past two weeks over injuries, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s glut of interceptions and Mario Williams’ lack of sacks, more worrisome developments have gone somewhat ignored.

Ralph Wilson’s declining health, stalled negotiations on a new stadium lease and Toronto punting away their bi-annual preseason game are all bad omens for the Bills future.

But worst of all was the Buffalo News report that team officials don’t expect to sell out as many as four late-season home games.

Judgement Day is coming for this pro football market. If multiple blacked out games and a continued inability to excite the Toronto fanbase persist, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue Western New York is still a viable home for this franchise.

The Bills' business model is based largely on the belief that more than 70,000 fans will file into the stadium on any given Sunday. That’s why ticket prices are lower here than anywhere else in the league and the billionaires who run the NFL forgive the market’s relative lack of corporate sponsorship dollars and big-spending suite-buyers.

Let’s be honest with ourselves — this isn’t quite as big of a football hotbed as we’d like to believe. Go to any high school game on a Friday night or UB on a Saturday if you disagree. 

Our three favorite past times, in no particular order, are eating, drinking and communally cheering on the Bills and Sabres.

September and October games at the Ralph provide the perfect venue to indulge in all three activities at once.

But when the winter weather we often claim to be so unaffected by hits, the eating and drinking aspect of going to a Bills game becomes far less appealing, and thousands of us decide to stay home and watch on television.

Or stay home and complain about the game being blacked out.

Bills officials have taken measures to curb rowdy behavior in the stands and team-owned lots. But they must be careful not to alienate this large bloc of the fan base, or the calls to "Make Mom Proud" will bounce off empty rows of seats in the stadium's upper bowl.

On the other hand, those fans need to do their part by showing up for every game, not just a select few.

I'm not talking about the truly dedicated supporters, the ones who treat season tickets as family heirlooms and boarded buses to Cleveland today.

It's the 10,000 or so that flaunt their dedication on the opening weekend, but are noticeably absent in the final month of the season.

I understand how uncomfortable it can be to sit in the stands on a cold, snowy day, particularly when the on-field product leaves something to be desired. (I’ve done it plenty of times when covering high schools, and once, in 2007, when the Giants were in town and the stadium squall flung frozen rain in all directions). I also acknowledge the holiday season is a factor.

But those are weak excuses for the lot of us.

If Bills fans are serious about keeping this team here, they need to circle the wagons and prove they love the actual football games as much the party in the parking lots.

Contact sports editor Jonah Bronstein at jonah.bronstein@niagara-gazette.com.