Buffalo Bills Blacked Out While NFL Counts TV Billions -- Today's Outrage

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- The Buffalo Bills are blacked out on local television again? If only there were a business with an extra $2.2 billion kicking around that could help them out.

The Bills' Sunday matchup with the Miami Dolphins was yanked from the local CBS affiliate after the team still had roughly 7,000 tickets unsold 72 hours before kickoff. Never mind that the 66,000 the Bills did sell would fill stadiums in nine NFL markets larger that Buffalo (Chicago, Indianapolis, Oakland, Arizona, Minneapolis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Tampa). Those 66,000 fans, meanwhile, will be shivering in Buffalo temperatures that peak at 35 degrees while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have drawn that big a crowd only once this season in a town where thermometers spend Decembers drifting through the mid-70s.

Brian Frederick, executive director of the National Sports Fans Coalition fan advocacy and lobbying group, says that part of the problem is the 73,079 capacity at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, which is much higher than the 61,500 sellout crowd at major-market Chicago's Soldier Field. Considering the population of Buffalo is nearly 293,000, while the population of Chicago is 2.9 million, Frederick implies that Bills ownership expecting a quarter of Buffalo's population to pay to attend games every other Sunday is about as unrealistic as asking 725,000 Chicago residents to come see the Bears.

But sellouts are of utmost importance. Seats must be filled. Attention must be paid!

That line of NFL reasoning would be a lot easier to swallow if the NFL hadn't just renewed its television deal with CBS ( CBS), Fox ( NWS) and NBC ( CMCSA) through 2022, increased its take from $1.9 billion per year to $3.1 billion and potentially boosted overall revenue by as much as 60%. That follows an eight-year extension the league signed with ESPN ( DIS) earlier this year to keep "Monday Night Football" on that network through 2021 and bump up its fee to $1.9 billion a year from $1.1 billion.

The NFL and the networks think this is grand. The new deal gives it more schedule flexibility to dump late-season matchups between losing teams outside their markets (such as Bills-Dolphins, for instance) for better games and cuts conference ties to networks to allow AFC to be shown on Fox and NFC games on CBS. It also adds more Thursday night games to the schedule, gives NBC the NFL Network's prime-time Thanksgiving game and a pregame show to anchor its NBC Sports Network (currently Versus).

Why shouldn't they love it? Their games were 23 of the Top 25 televised programs watched this fall. Their ratings dwarf those of even the strongest prime-time shows.

The one thing these new deals fail to address, however, is the NFL's blackout rule. Perhaps it's because there have been only 14 blackouts across the league this year, well off last year's 26-blackout pace. That lower number obscures the larger problem of the NFL rule affecting some markets a whole lot more than others.

Of this year's 14 blackouts, more than two thirds involved just two teams: The Buccaneers and the Cincinnati Bengals. The 4-9 Bucs could pin their problems on terrible play this season, but not last year when every home game was blacked out during a winning campaign. The Bengals, on the other hand, could blame a terrible four-win season for a string of blackouts at the end of 2010 but are 7-6 behind upstart quarterback Andy Dalton this year.

In both towns, the economy has taken its toll on fan bases that already spent millions in public tax dollars to build team stadiums. It's not about play and it's not about the franchise's future: It's about the cost of supporting a team that can't even show home games on a regular basis. For Buffalo and the San Diego Chargers, meanwhile, uncertainty surrounding their stadiums and not-so-subtle overtures by cities including Toronto and Los Angeles is being expressed through flagging Sunday attendance. Neither team is heading to the playoffs this year, but fans more unsure about where each team is heading when leases at Ralph Wilson Stadium and Qualcomm ( QCOM) Stadium end have bigger problems than missing the postseason.

There wouldn't be so much angst in these markets if the league and its broadcast partners used the means available to them to end blackouts. In Miami, for instance, a horrible season that led to Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano's firing would have been a lot worse if the local CBS affiliate hadn't stepped in. On multiple occasions this year, CBS4 WFOR and the Dolphins have exploited a loophole in the NFL blackout rule that allows teams, their sponsors and their broadcasters to buy unsold tickets for 34 cents on the dollar and give them to local charities.

Why doesn't this option come up in TV rights negotiations? If the NFL is going to squeeze networks for billions more anyway over the next four years, why not raise the price, create a blackout fund and keep teams on the air all season instead of punitively stripping home games off of local market television?

Or, you know, do away with the blackout deal altogether and realize that the exclusive broadcast rights it sells to the networks, cable stations and satellite television providers are a far more precious commodity than the seats in its stadiums.

If the NFL takes away anything from the networks' multibillion-dollar bid for their games and the blackouts that followed, it's that the only seats most NFL fans care about filling are those in their warm homes in front of their HDTVs and the Sunday ticket they're most interested in buying is the multigame, seasonlong package sold by DirecTV ( DTV) -- for less than the cost of taking their family to the stadium.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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