Back in 1994, during the prehistoric days of this Internet thing, a friend put up a website dedicated to the Buffalo Bills. Having moved away from WNY well before that, the Internet opened a wide new window to follow our favorite team. It sure beat waiting until Friday’s mail delivered the print editions of Shout! magazine.
On our little website we thought it would be cool to offer random musings on the Bills drawing from the still sparse tidbits that were collected from pioneer sports sites and other connected fans. The basic hobby turned into a weekly review of the games and major offseason events. Oblivious to how spoiled we were in the mid ‘90s by a Bills team of the ages, we allowed ourselves to forget the true history of Buffalo’s football mediocrity interspersed with brief flashes of triumph.
Still, it’s a shame that this Internet thing wasn’t discovered sooner by us. By the time we began writing, the light was dimming on the franchise run, the offense sputtered and the run game stalled. But the team still played sound fundamentals and it was funny to see confusion on the sidelines and in the huddles of the opponents. And appropriately, most of the weekly game notes still poked fun at the other teams’ miscues in attention to detail, clock management and general incompetence.
A big part of that attention to detail, of course, involved respecting nature’s elements that inevitably came up in the stadium previously known as Rich. It wasn’t the Bills’ coaches or players idea to put the playing field on a flat plane within a spitting distance of the lake with an unobstructed path for the winds, water, snow, ice, or whatever Erie felt like disgorging onto the 80,000 red, white, and blue revelers on its eastern edge. But the smart players and coaches knew and respected it. That’s why it was always amusing to see visiting coaches stick to normal routine and ignore the main point that after October, you defend the scoreboard endzone in the fourth quarter, no matter what. Every 10-year old Buffalonian knew that, but somehow few of the opposing coaches picked up the local nugget of wisdom. Back then it was funny to laugh at Bill Parcells who stood stonefaced when Adam Vinatieri (yeah him) was short on a 30-something yard field goal. Funny stuff.
But as all good things must end, things started changing for us in 1997, as many other sites did a better job covering the Bills than we did, and the pros realized that this Internet thingy was not a passing phase. We took down the shingle from gobills.com, but still offered irregular commentary here & there, much like the Bills playoff runs in 1998 & 1999. But mostly we’ve been away from actively writing & reporting, again similar to the Bills being away from competitive football since 1999.
I didn’t miss it that much, as in these 10 seasons, thanks to wall to wall coverage of Bills news on the Internet, NFL Sunday Ticket, ESPN and NFL Network, I’ve been able to get my Bills’ fix. Year round. 24/7.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one. It was great to watch Bills’ away games in sunny climes and hear a huge roar from the visiting crowd when something good happened to Buffalo. When DirecTV surveyed its Sunday ticket customers this year, it found that Bills fans were among the largest and most loyal among the displaced fandom in the sunbelt. The Bills dispora is large and is everywhere.
Which brings us to today. Most of my Buffalo fandom soulmates grew up in the ‘60s & ‘70s, so following a losing team isn’t unique to us. You can say it’s part of character building, like being forced to clear the driveways and sidewalks from November to March.
So why was this season not like another season? What made this season and brief offseason particularly depressing?
It actually didn’t sink in during the three game slide to hated division rivals, but in a meltdown on Monday Night in full view of a national TV audience. It wasn’t just the loss, it was the way they lost it. They lost by ignoring the fundamentals of what it means to play in Western New York in the fall and winter. They ignored the basic tenets of the home advantage that the dark foreboding lake has on the out-of-towners’ psyche as their airplane circles Orchard Park on the landing approach.
Following that game I fielded a few messages from the diaspora comrades. Somehow this loss was different. The messages were, “I’m finally out.” The guys who were die hard fans, dedicating each fall Sunday afternoon to watching the team for over 30 years, were giving up. “Why should we bother to give up most of our Sundays,” they asked, “When the team obviously doesn’t care.” Their financial commitment isn’t the same as flying to Buffalo and buying game tickets, but the time and emotional commitment is the same.
I couldn’t respond, as I agreed. The emotion and attachment that I always associated with the team was suddenly gone. Why bother? There are better things I could be doing. Why bother with the nearly $300 Sunday Ticket sticker price shock, when the summation of the previous day’s ineptitude is available online in real time? For a few moments on prime-time recap shows, the Bills highlights are indistinguishable from the Lions or the Browns. So the uniform color is different. So, what?
That suddenly empty feeling was later amplified upon hearing louder cheers for a Dolphins first down at a December “home” game. Otherwise, the Rogers Centre crowd elicited the sound of empty seats dressed up in US dollar green.
As the season ground to a merciful halt, it turned out that I had company. The feeling of disgust permeated the entire Bills fan community. Say what you want about these Internets tubes, they are wonderful feedback loops.
Suddenly the Sunday Ticket plans that are usually set for auto renewal, are on the backburner. Circling the Sunday dates on the 2009 calendar when the schedule is released in April, is no longer a given. Visits back to Buffalo will no longer happen only in football season (good thing for the rest of WNY economy).
Other franchises with large home bases may shrug off a temporary fan revolt.
Not when it’s an annual struggle to fill the stadium. Not when a good portion of the crowd has to travel over 100 miles to attend the game.
It would be easy to blame the economy for the fan apathy. But in a bad economy, there is more competition vying for a share of Bills’ fans attention and spending cash. Chances are, the fans’ money will follow those who don’t skimp on the product nor insult their intelligence by taking them for granted. When the emotion is taken from the fandom, you have to compete on purely economic and entertainment terms. That’s where Ralph Wilson’s Bills lose.
Of course speaking in economic terms, Ralph Wilson probably did his math and if less than 7,000 fans walk out on the team next year, then he’s a net winner with Dick Jauron’s extended contract.
A net winner indeed.
So many thanks Mr. Wilson for all these years, but next year I think I’ll stick to checking out the highlights on the Internet. For free. If time permits.
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