Bills' spending spree paying off in ticket sales

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Joel Thompson gave up his Buffalo Bills season tickets two years ago. Now he's back on the bandwagon.

All it took to get Thompson to "Bill-lieve," as fans put it in Buffalo, was a span of three days last month. That was the time it took prized free-agent defensive end Mario Williams to arrive in town to negotiate and sign a whopping six-year, $100 million contract.

"When Mario came in for a visit, I got together with the guys, and said, `All right, if this happens, if he signs, we'll go back,"' Thompson recalled Friday. "And sure enough, that's what happened."

The day Williams signed, Thompson sent an e-mail to his former Bills ticket representative to lock up six season tickets. And the purchase was completed a week later.

"This looked legit," said Thompson, who had previously held season tickets for eight seasons - from 2002-09 - in which the Bills failed to make the playoffs. "Adding Mario, I thought, `Maybe this team can win sooner than later."'

Thompson is not the only one buying in.

The Bills' offseason spending spree - they also signed free-agent defensive end Mark Anderson and re-signed top receiver Stevie Johnson - is already paying off.

CEO Russ Brandon said the team has already sold 4,320 new season-ticket packages, and added that renewal orders are coming in at the fastest pace in 15 years.

Brandon credits the spike to the team's offseason splashes and a growing optimism around town that the Bills just might be turning the corner after missing the playoffs for 13 consecutive seasons - the NFL's longest active postseason drought.

"With the additional signings, it certainly was a huge boost," Brandon said, before also crediting the work of general manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey. "And one of the things that's really resonated is that people feel the team is headed in the right direction under the guidance of Buddy and Chan. ... People seem very pleased that the arrow's pointed up."

Nix and Gailey are entering their third seasons on the job. The Bills are coming off a 6-10 finish in which they got off to a surprising 5-2 start before losing eight of nine.

The surge in sales comes a year after the Bills sold 37,355 season tickets, the team's lowest total since 2001 and about 7,000 fewer than the previous year. The Bills also failed to sell out their final three games last season.

Part of the blame for the drop fell on the NFL lockout, which wiped out much of the offseason, the prime time for teams to generate ticket sales.

This offseason, the Bills have made it a priority to increase sales. Buffalo already has one of the NFL's lowest average ticket prices at about $53. Aside from not raising ticket prices this season, the Bills also dropped prices in two separate sections - including a family section - of Ralph Wilson Stadium to spur sales.

Brandon won't make projections, but considers 50,000 season tickets as a realistic goal for the market.

Sales and free-agent signings are one thing. For Brandon and the Bills, the next step is to prove they're capable of winning on the field.

"Yeah, we're in a prove-it business," Brandon said. "We continue to work as an organization in order to get back to where we need to be."

Thompson is upbeat about the Bills, though wary because he's been disappointed before. The first time Thompson and his friends purchased season tickets was in the spring of 2002, days after Buffalo acquired quarterback Drew Bledsoe in a trade with New England.

Bledsoe lasted three seasons with the Bills before being cut.

"Obviously, we're a bit prone to impulse, perhaps," Thompson said. "But the thing for me is this team doesn't seem like it's far off from being good."

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