NFL's Blackouts Hit Buffalo in Week 5

BUFFALO (TheStreet) -- Finally, in Week 5, the NFL's blackout bug hits a cold-weather team -- one that can least afford this type of punishment.

With 12,000 tickets left to sell at Ralph Wilson Stadium and the out-of-division Jacksonville Jaguars in town, the Buffalo Bills will have a home game blacked out locally for the first time since 2006. They're not the only blackout this week -- with the Oakland Raiders approaching their 10th straight and the Lions needing an extension to sell tickets -- but they're easily the most painful.

For a team that's been among the league's perennial underperformers since the end of its glory days in the 1990s -- absent from the playoffs since losing the infamous "Music City Miracle" game to the Tennessee Titans in 2000 and devoid of a winning season since a 9-7 campaign in 2004 -- a blackout is bad. For a team that is playing one of its "home" game against the Chicago Bears in Toronto on Nov. 7 and already considers a blackout of its Nov. 14 matchup with the Detroit Lions a distinct possibility, it's a nightmare just slightly less scary than Roger Irsay pulling Mayflower moving trucks up to the stadium in the middle of the night and hauling the team out of town (sorry, Baltimore, but we figured that 2000 Super Bowl title may have salved the wounds by now).

Speculation about the Bills' fate in Buffalo has been rampant since Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. reached an agreement in 2008 with Ted Rogers -- owner of Toronto's Rogers Centre (which most Americans still know as the SkyDome) -- to host five regular-season Bills games in Toronto. Wilson is the oldest owner in the NFL at 91 and has no plans for succession; the city of Buffalo's population has shrunk to little more than 270,000 people from its peak of more than 580,000 in 1950; and while the greater metropolitan area has more than 1.1 million people, it pales when compared with the Toronto area's 5.4 million or the NFL-deprived Los Angeles market's 17 million-plus.

Attendance isn't usually a big problem in Buffalo, which had sold out 26 consecutive games leading up to the blackout. The team's on-field woes and the economy have taken a toll as the Bills announced earlier this year that season ticket sales had dropped by 11,000 from last year after the team raised ticket prices 15%. Even with that hike, the Bills have the third-lowest average ticket price in the league at $59.19, according to Team Marketing Report. Despite strong backing from local sponsors including Tim Hortons ( THI), M&T Bank ( MTB), Xerox ( XRX) and Anheuser-Busch InBev's ( BUD) Labatt, a tough economic climate keeps Toronto's shadow over Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Bills fans and cynics can blame the Jaguars for this all they'd like -- considering a San Diego Chargers home game against the Jags was already blacked out this season -- but they've sold out their home appearances this year. In Buffalo, it comes down to one major flaw: on-field performance. Local Bills fans deal with more than 25% poverty, a 7.6% jobless rate, a 43% dropoff in home sales, a slate gray sky for nearly nine months a year and mountains of lake-effect snow. Under those circumstances, a winning season isn't a whole lot to ask.

Of course, there's a way it could be worse. This week the Oakland Raiders have blacked out their third home game of the season, their 10th home game in a row and 79 of their last 123. Their reward for these milestones? Playing the Chargers, who've also blacked out their only home games of the season. Perhaps Chargers and Raiders fans in attendance can commiserate about the games they haven't been watching at home, but even if the Chargers emerge from this game with a 3-2 record, it's a safe bet neither team will come out of the Blackout Bowl a winner.

The Detroit Lions are looking to avoid a similar fate after receiving a sales extension from the league with 2,500 tickets still unsold. It's the Lions' second extension of the year, so it seems fitting that their Sunday opponent is the St. Louis Rams, which also needed two extensions from the league to sell out home games this season. At least the Rams have rewarded its home fans with some wins this season, while the winless Lions love to show fans a thrilling loss -- dropping its two previous home games by a combined eight points.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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