op-ed: Democrat and Chronicle – August 17, 1998; 5A

Let’s run defense vs. Bills’ blackout
by Ralph Nader

Just when fans might have been cheering over the Bills taking the corporate name off the stadium formerly known as Rich, here comes another “foul ball.”

The National Football League told WTVH-TV (Channel 5), the CBS affiliate in Syracuse, that the league’s blackout rule prevents the station from showing any Bills game that does not sell out all 80,000 seats in “Bills Stadium” at least 72 hours before kickoff. TV stations with a signal penetrating a 75-mile radius from the game site will be blacked out.

The new interpretation of the NFL’s 47-year-old blackout rule affects at least 48,000 Time Warner Communications cable customers in parts of Ontario, Wayne, Seneca and Cayuga counties and thousands more in the finger lakes region who were used to watching Bills games over a Syracuse TV or cable feed.

The revised rule also will hurt bars and restaurants, including some in Ontario County that televised the games. The announcement came just when things were starting to look hopeful for Bills’ fans.

The stadium in Orchard Park had been called “Rich” since 1973, when Rich Products, which produces the nondairy creamer, bought the naming rights as part of the team’s original 25-year stadium lease. Before the lease expired July 31, however, Bills’ owner Ralph Wilson broke the trend which is sweeping the world of professional sports.

Wilson, one of the pioneers of making money through the sale of naming rights, said he will not sell the rights again. Instead he will name the stadium — possibly after longtime Bills’ coach Marv Levy — in honor of someone close to the team.

More and more, Major League owners are vying for money any way they can get it. Selling stadium naming rights to corporations is one of the easiest ways to do so.

So, did this announcement signal a change in the current trend of putting profits over the best interest of fans? No. Apparently it was just an exception to what’s becoming the rule, which brings us back to the blackout.

After NBC lost the bid to CBS to broadcast AFC games this fall, lawyers for the NFL re-examined the radius that WTVH-TV reaches beyond Syracuse, and found that a tiny portion of Yates County that receives the television signal falls within the 75-mile boundary of the stadium.

Now fans who have watched Bills games out of Syracuse — even if they are outside the 75-mile radius of the stadium — will no longer see their favorite team play unless all the tickets are sold out three days in advance. Just because a minuscule piece of land receives a television signal.

For 47 years the NFL has literally held its fans hostage by the blackout rule. “Either you sell out each game, or you do not get to watch,” the league says. Not only the league, but teams as well, benefit from the stranglehold.

For instance, with the Bills’ season ticket sales below 30,000 for the upcoming season, fans may be coerced into purchasing season tickets for a team that finished 6-10 last season, out of fear that they will not be able to see the games on television.

And if this still doesn’t seem all too disheartening, take a quick look into the future. Could a blackout be called if all season tickets are not sold before the start of the season? Or might a blackout loom if fans do not purchase private seat licenses for mediocre seats? The PSL is like a tax on a season’s ticket that fans now pay to help assure they’ll get the seat of their choice.

So, what can be done about the blackout? We are starting an association of fans. We have received thousands of letters from fans who are fed up with the treatment they receive from professional sports leagues and owners.

This extended blackout rule is only the beginning. We can stop it and other mistreatment of fans if we unite. If you agree, send your thoughts and suggestions to me, c/o Fans, P.O. Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036.


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