My earliest experience going to a football game was one of the NFL strike games during the 1987 season. That game was a painful 14-7 loss to the New England Patriots. Most of the fans were, as I remember it, pretty surly in the parking lot after the game but I had one of the greatest times of my then young life.
Looking back on it now it was terrible football no worse than the Bills regulars were that year, but that's not saying much. The experience of poster making with my brothers, tailgating, and going to a game with family is one of my best childhood memories.
Like any good Buffalonian I followed the Bills like almost nothing else. I cut school to go to the rally the day after super bowl twenty five. I made it to just about every home game against Miami and even sold horns in the parking lot just to raise enough money for tickets to that game. I was every scalpers dream young, desperate, and with holding close to 100 dollars a half hour before kickoff.
Also, like any good Buffalonian, I was completely oblivious to all football except the Bills.
Espn recently summed up the situation pretty well
Heart of the City: Buffalo - College Football Nation Blog - ESPN
Buffalo doesn’t have the history or tradition of your prototypical college football team. The school dropped football for a time in the 1970s because of declining on-field performance and financial difficulties. But it resumed play in 1977 on the Division III level. The Bulls moved their way up to FCS and have only been an FBS member since 1999.
Even when I started as a student at UB and the Bulls were close to completing the 'Run to Division One' I would spend hours watching the Bills and not go beyond the spectrum headlines when it came to the Bulls. So I really understand why UB has had trouble breaking into the Buffalo sports culture. For so many Bills fans College football is at most a curiosity and mid major ball is barely noticeable.
Despite the fact UB has a football history going back more than a hundred years, has more deeply established community ties, and has been modestly successful in recent seasons Buffalo sports fans can't identify with the Bulls.
|Paying the Bills
|* One Game in Toronto
No matter how bad the Bills get, Their last winning season was in 2004, they are not going to have too much trouble getting seventy thousand people to descend upon scenic orchard park, pay upwards of fifty dollars for a ticket, 15 for parking, and spend an hour trying to get ten miles from the stadium after a game.
UB seems to try to market season ticket packages ahead of individual game plans. A good example is the 42 Bleacher seats season tickets. Basically UB is letting you in for 7$ per game (Kids under five get in for free).
Factor in free parking, discounts for kids and free admission kids under five and UB has put together a really 'family friendly environment. What other sporting event in Buffalo can a father take his kid to for seven dollars.
The Bills, of course, offer a much more exciting in stadium experience. UB is certainly getting better, Warde Manual has worked well with True Blue and Coach Quinn's "victory march" is the first of what will hopefully be many new traditions. Still I've been to Buffalo Bills games and nothing beats seventy thousand screaming fans. Hence they can ask for more money.
Football fans can have their cake and eat it too
One frustrating aspect to me, as a fan of both teams, is that for people living in the Buffalo Niagara Region there's no need to really be a 'choice' between the two teams.
|2010 Only Game in Town
UB Season Tickets are priced low enough that its worth getting the entire bleacher package even if you only want to attend two or more games.
There is no doubt that the Bulls play second football fiddle to the Bills in Western New York but there is plenty of room for both teams in any 'ultimate fans' day planner.
Last year there were football games in Amherst five times during a week when the Bills either had a bye or were playing on the road. While usually the number is not quite that high typically the Bulls do have several home dates on weekends when the Ralph sits empty, especially since the Bills decided to make Toronto their second home.
A Buffalo Bills season ticket holder could have increased the number of football games they attended from eight to 13. As discussed above they could do those games for a fraction of the cost of Bills games. This is just one of the routes for growth that are available to UB. Hows this season looking?
Assuming the schedule is not moved because of the ongoing lockout:
|at Kansas City
|at Ball State
|at Temple *
|at New York (G)
|at Miami *
|New York (Jets)
|at EMU *
|Bowling Green * (fri)
|at New York (Jets)
|at San Diego
|at New England
There are four weekends where the tailgate in Amherst is the only game in town. Throw in the UConn / NewEngland pairing in week four and it could be an interesting season.
So what gets a Bills Fan Interest?
I asked Brian Galliford who runs the best site on the for Bills Fan's, Buffalo Rumblings, what he heard about the Bulls among his community of fans.
UB talk is not widespread amongst the Bills fan base by any means, but any time they produce NFL talent, Bills fans are very quick to take notice. James Starks was something of a local hero during Green Bay's Super Bowl run, and there's a lot of support out there for Naaman Roosevelt. For years, Bills fans inexplicably lobbied for the team to sign Drew Willy as a developmental prospect. This year, I'm curious to see where Josh Thomas ends up. --Brian Galliford
UB is on the radar but only just. The Bills as an organization are tremendously helpful letting the Bulls use the Ralph Wilson field house but any kind of collaboration ends there. It would be great to see the Bulls offer discounts to Buffalo Bills season ticket holders or vice versa but the Bills hold all the cards.
Another way to generate interest is to put more players in the NFL. As Galliford mentioned above the one things that has most caught the attention of Bills fans is local blood going to the NFL. Roosevelt is the best recent example of that breaking onto the Bills last season. Galliford is not too high on his chances of making the roster this year:
He started last season on the practice squad, and given that the team's receivers will be at full health again in July when training camp is supposed to start, that's where I expect Roosevelt to begin the 2011 season. He proved in brief game appearances last year that he belongs in the league - he's got a knack for getting open and making some plays. I'm just not sure how much upside he has. --Brian Galliford
So in a world where the Bulls and Bills both exist winning is going to be the only way to break into the culture. Buffalo sports fans show amazing endurance while their teams flounder (see the Bills) but you have to endear your self to them first.
The prescription for a permanent shift in the attitude of Bills fans might be a CMU like run. If UB can somehow position themselves to go to three or four straight bowl and win several championships in a row Bills fans will start to come out. Just look at the Bandits.
Back to the Future?
So the formula for getting into the mix is winning, but what happens without the Bills in the Picture? UB has been playing football for more than a century. With a possible lost NFL season this year Buffalo might be the only game in town for Bills fans.
Assuming that the lockout holds up and that the player and owners cant come to terms by September you can bet that the UFL, CFL, Arena League, and any local talent sitting around will play scab ball.
It's impossible to speculate on the future of the Bills, because it'll be Ralph's team until he passes away, and all of the rumors of Jim Kelly and now Terry Pegula being interested in buying the team are exactly that - rumors. In the catastrophic event that the Bills ever left Buffalo, I'd guess - but it's only a guess - that most fans would be disenchanted with pro football altogether. UB might benefit some, but obviously the Sabres would be the big fiscal winners.