PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Buffalo Bills and Sabres fans enter every new season knowing that, a decade from now, their teams may not be around for another.That uncertainty and the sheer amount of years they've faced it have imbued Buffalo sports fans and their diaspora with trademark emotional volatility that fluctuates between cautious passion and reluctant resignation -- with plenty of the latter as the Bills fielded a third-string quarterback and flirted with an early season local television blackout in Week 5 of the National Football League season. After nearly 20 years of witnessing it firsthand, I'm still not accustomed to the ritual torture inflicted on Buffalo fans nor the increasing intensity of those indignities. It wasn't always that bleak by Lake Erie, but the misery has been brewing for a while. In 1994, I left the New Jersey and the New York metro area for the first time to start my freshman year at Syracuse University. Syracuse, N.Y., is two hours from Buffalo; four hours from New York City and Philadelphia; and about five hours from Boston if I-90 and the Mass Pike play along. In the fall, that made campus a stewpot of pro sports alliances that included the Giants, Jets, Patriots, Rangers, Bruins, Islanders, Eagles, Flyers, Knicks, Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Phillies, Celtics, Devils and just about every other team in between. Dorm hallways had more East Coast sports bias than ESPN, but pre- DirecTV ( DTV) and pre-Sunday Ticket NFL Sundays were an even split between the Buffalo Bills in the AFC game of the week and the Giants in the NFC matchup. The Buffalo Bills fans were ubiquitous, with folks on my dorm floor from Rochester and Buffalo still riding the high of four-straight Super Bowl appearances, tempered with the pain of zero wins in those matchups. These were the Jim Kelly/Thurman Thomas/Andre Reed/Bruce Smith/Don Beebe golden years when fans could point to backup quarterback Frank Reich's comeback from a 35-3 deficit against the Houston Oilers during the playoffs in 1993 as proof that their team was not only a contender, but would be one for some time.
What they often failed to mention about that game was that it was blacked out on local television in Western New York after the Bills failed to sell out in the middle of a bleak Buffalo winter. The bad times were coming, and they were about to hit like an underestimated lake-effect snowstorm. During that first year in Syracuse in 1994, the Bills went 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1987. A friend from Rochester marked the occasion prematurely -- during the 21-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the third-to-last game of the season -- by shattering a storage trunk against the cinder block wall of a suite where about a half-dozen of us were watching the game. The chicken wings that were sitting on the trunk/table seconds before never tasted quite right after that. It seemed like a hissyfit thrown by a spoiled fan at the time -- and wasn't helped by the tears that followed -- but nearly two decades of hindsight make it seem not only appropriate, but restrained. The Bills would make the playoffs only four more times after that, losing in the first round on three occasions and -- in their last playoff appearance in 2000 -- losing to the Tennessee Titans on a controversial lateral in a Titans comeback later dubbed the Music City Miracle. The Bills would only have one more winning season -- a 9-7 campaign in 2004 -- and fans would watch a combination of draft picks and fading veterans including Drew Bledsoe, Willis McGahee, Eric Mould, Lee Evans, Bryce Paup, London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes come and go. They'd see more late-season games blacked out because one of the NFL's smallest markets that is regularly socked in by feet of snow at a time has to fill a stadium ranging from 80,000 to its current 73,000 in capacity in the middle of winter -- while only 61,500 people in the 9.5-million-person Chicagoland area have to come to Soldier Field to keep the Bears on the air. In 2008, the Bills started sacrificing a home game a year to Toronto. The team's front office says it's a necessary move to regionalize the franchise beyond its relatively small Western New York base. Fans can be forgiven if it seemed a little sketchy, especially since 94-year-old owner Ralph Wilson only guaranteed the team's presence in Buffalo as long as he was alive. They should also get some leeway for thinking that maybe the series was being used as leverage by the front office, which could dangle Toronto as a willing suitor -- even if Toronto's Canadian Football League team didn't agree -- while squeezing New York State and Erie County for $227 million in stadium renovations and other costs. That deal was just agreed to earlier this year, with the Bills agreeing to only a 10-year lease for that sum.
Fans know that Forbes values the Bills above only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders among NFL franchises and have tried, in vain, to get the league to grant the Bills a community ownership provision similar to that used by the Green Bay Packers and grandfathered in by the league. Meanwhile, fans watched this year's quarterback apparent fall to injury, saw rookie E.J. Manuel suffer the same fate and watched a once-promising season fall into the hands of journeyman quarterback Thad Lewis and flustered rookie Head Coach Doug Marrone. Sabres fans haven't fared much better. Once a perennial playoff contender -- making the Stanley Cup finals in 1975 and earning a postseason spot in all but three seasons through 2001 -- the Sabres fortunes took a turn almost immediately after the Dallas Stars' Brett Hull stuck his foot into the goal crease, fired a shot past Sabres star goaltender Domenik Hasek in the third overtime of a decisive Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final and denied the Sabres one last shot at the first championship in team history. By 2002, team owner and Adelphia Communications owner John Rigas and his sons were convicted of bank, wire and securities fraud for embezzling more than $2 billion from his company. The league took control of the team before eventually selling to Rochester billionaire and former New York gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano and former Sabres president Larry Quinn. Short on cash, they gutted the team of stars like Rob Ray, Stu Barnes and Chris Gratton, but picked up building blocks like future star Danny Briere. Though they'd get back to the playoffs and make the conference finals two years in a row in 2006 and 2007, the cash-strapped club continued to purge talent like Briere and his co-captain Chris Drury. Meanwhile, now former Research In Motion ( BBRY) chief executive and BlackBerry creator Jim Balsilie kept attempting to place teams including the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes in nearby Hamilton, Ont. -- dangerously close to the Sabres' turf. Balsilie eventually made a bid for the Sabres themselves in 2010, with the intention of shuffling them across the border. The league turned down the bid and gave the Sabres to East Resources founder and CEO Terry Pegula.
Even after missing the playoffs for the past two seasons, cutting loose even more longtime talent last season and dumping head coach Lindy Ruff -- who'd led the team since 1997 and was the longest tenured NHL coach before his dismissal -- this is about as stable as the Sabres have been since the late '90s. That's only somewhat of a compliment with the team currently buried near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, but the Sabres show no signs of leaving Buffalo even with NHL-caliber arenas at the ready or on the way in Quebec, Seattle and Kansas City. That's just about the most frustrating part about being a Buffalo sports fan or observing them: When things are at their most bleak, the teams do something just right enough to give fans some hope. Maybe its former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick showing signs of greatness a few seasons ago and giving Bills fans the brief idea that their team can unseat the Patriots atop the AFC East. Maybe its the Sabres running out to a 3-2 series lead on the Flyers in the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, only to watch once-flawless goaltender Ryan Miller give up 10 goals over the next two games to bounce the Sabres out of the playoffs. Maybe it's Terry Pegula and the Wilson family telling the city it's all going to be OK and that their teams aren't going anywhere while seeking more renovations for First Niagara Center and Ralph Wilson Stadium. Those moments of optimism make the wins sweeter. They make the town feel like the cool little secret that only its fans, citizens and expatriates know about. It gives the coffee at Tim Horton's ( THI) a little more jolt and the wings at Duff's a little more spice. They're like the euphoric, joyous ending of Buffalo '66 on repeat. They also make the losses, the low seasons, the harsh winters, the "Rust Belt" jabs and the continued focus on the city's shrinking, if vibrant, population a bit tougher to take. For people invested in these teams either emotionally or as taxpayers, the not-so-subtle manipulation by ownership and the near indifference toward those who pay for taxes, tickets, jerseys, parking and all the other elements that keep the Bills and Sabres afloat tends to grate beyond the point of tolerance.
Sunday's Bills game was on air in the Buffalo area because Bills ownership bought out the remaining 3,500 tickets -- which they could have avoided if they hadn't refused the NFL's offer to make 85% of maximum attendance a "sellout." Only one of the next four home games has sold out and another, a Dec. 1 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, is being played in Toronto. Winter hasn't even arrived yet and that Bills fan who took out his frustrations on a storage trunk 19 years ago has already written a Facebook post cursing the lethargic Bills and their use of Manuel's injury as justification for coasting to a 2-4 record. Another Buffalo expat from Syracuse quoted a passage from an ESPN story about Oakland potentially losing all of its pro sports teams, saying it frightened him as a Buffalo fan. "The soul of a place meant nothing. Decades of loyalty meant nothing. Every paying customer became a walking bar code, and the worth of a city became the Nasdaq valuation of the companies leasing the luxury suites. The experience of going to a game changed from a communal celebration -- the only common ground for gangbangers and cops, truants and teachers -- to something completely different." They look over a landscape of Great Lakes and New York cities that once hosted NFL, NBA and NHL teams and were left with nothing, then look at their own town as it clings to what's left. The Bills' lease at Ralph Wilson runs another decade, the Bills' Toronto Series was just extended through 2017 and the Sabres' lease at the first Niagara Center is up in 2026. It's unlikely that either team would move before then, but that may be a test of faith that Buffalo just doesn't have. This small market has invested a big portion of its heart into the Bills and Sabres, and breaking that heart just keeps paying off for those teams' front offices. -- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.