The Buffalo Bills have seen their $100 million investment in free agent defensive end Mario Williams pay immediate dividends.
In the three days after the Bills made Williams the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history earlier this month, team chief executive officer Russ Brandon said sold more than 1,650 new season ticket packages and another 4,000 more were renewed. The Bills had to extend their ticket office hours the weekend after the signing to handle the increased demand.
The team is hoping to reverse a trend of declining season ticket sales. According to Buffalo News, the Bills sold 37,355 season tickets last year. That’s down more than 32 percent from two years ago, when they sold 55,308.
The Bills didn’t stop with the acquisition of Williams, 27, one of the NFL’s premier defensive linemen, who was signed away from the Houston Texans to a six-year, $100 million deal, with $50 million guaranteed. Buffalo has committed more than $183 million to new contracts so far this off-season, the most in the NFL.
Another notable signing to bookend the defensive line with Williams was defensive end Mark Anderson, who got a four-year, $28 million deal. No one has more sacks in the AFC since 2007 than Williams’ 48 1/2. And that comes after the former No. 1 overall draft pick missed 11 games last season with a torn pectoral muscle. Anderson, who had 10 sacks for the New England Patriots last season, further solidifies a defensive line that already had Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams before the Mario Williams’ signing.
The Bills aggressively pursued Williams as soon as the free agency period began March 13 and Williams, the top free agent available who is not named Peyton Manning, surprised many NFL observers by choosing Buffalo. The Bills haven’t reached the playoffs or had a winning season since 1999.
The additions have helped energize a battered fan base that watched the Bills lose eight of their final nine games last season after they got off to a surprising 5-2 start. The Bills’ slide led to their final three home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., not selling out and being blacked out in the Buffalo television market. A non-contending team playing late-season games in a 73,000-seat, open-air stadium in Buffalo’s weather has made non-sellouts and blackouts a problem in recent years.
The Bills announced last month that season ticket prices will remain the same this season. The Bills’ average face value ticket price of $59.19 last season was well below the league average of $77.34.
The Bills averaged 62,964 a game last season, which was 24th in the 32-team NFL. Since 2008, they’ve played one home game at Rogers Centre in Toronto, about 100 miles away, in an attempt to court the Canadian market. They’ll play a game in Toronto again this season. Bills founder and owner Ralph Wilson is 93 and while he’s expressed his desire to have the team to stay in Buffalo, he has said he can’t guarantee the team’s future there after he’s gone.
The spending spree comes as the team is reportedly seeking up to $100 million in public funding for renovations to the 39-year-old stadium as the Bills continue negotiations on a new lease with Erie County, N.Y., that expires after this season. When asked by WGRZ-TV in Buffalo how the team reconciles the spending with the need for taxpayer money, Brandon said there are two separate issues.
“It’s really church and state,” Brandon told the television station. “It’s a mischaracterization of how that part of our business works, compared to the other end of our business, so we’ll just focus on trying to field the best team possible and trying to work within the salary cap that’s presented to us and just move from there.”