This question is batted around in my native Buffalo a lot, and it has nothing to do with terrorist threats. It’s a perennial issue during football season, when Western New Yorkers endure another round of derisive and dismissive comments about the Buffalo Bills. They’re made fun of when they lose. They’re made fun of when they succeed; as Buffalo went to an historic fourth straight Super Bowl in 1993, columnists wrote sneering pieces about how the Bills were going to "ruin" another Super Bowl with a fourth loss. And now that the Bills (who, the national sports announcers love to remind us, have missed the playoffs 11 years running) are one of just seven undefeated clubs in the league, the haters are out in full force, confident that pathetic Buffalo will be rightly put in its place by the admittedly stellar New England Patriots on Sunday.
If it were only about football, Buffalonians could take the trash talk. But I think it has little to do with the game and everything to do with distaste for the modern Other America. It’s not anti-Bills. It’s anti-old urban, anti-labor and anti-manufacturing economy. It’s not the loser teams that bother the professional sportscaster crowd so much. It’s the loser cities, the ones whose residents may have built this country, but which now represent a depressed and depressing Old Economy no one wants to acknowledge, let alone appreciate. The NFL and the networks which broadcast it want to open with scene-setting visages of gleaming office buildings and hotels. Snow falling on shuttered steel mills doesn’t cut it.
Buffalo — along with Detroit and Cleveland — are treated like the illegitimate children of the league. They’re there, but everyone seems embarrassed by them and just wishes they would go away and leave the game to teams in glitzier, more prosperous cities. In Buffalo’s case, that is literally true. There’s a lot of talk about moving the team to Toronto, a bigger, shinier market, but one with questionable loyalty to American football. The Bills now play one game a year in Toronto, and the games don’t sell out, even in the Ontario capital’s smaller, 54,000-capacity stadium. In 2009, tickets were given away to plump up attendance. Buffalo, despite being less wealthy, almost always sells out the games at its 73,000-capacity stadium, and garners impressive loyalty from its better-heeled fans. Last year, when the Bills failed to sell out their final home game, local restaurateur Russell Salvatore bought the remaining 7,000 tickets, gave them away to children and members of the military, and precluded a TV blackout of the game. It’s hard to imagine that happening in the NFL’s big-city markets.
The league and its commentators have their favorites, and they are in more prosperous or new-economy America. The Dallas Cowboys, the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins — they’ll always get a healthy chunk of time on ESPN, no matter how badly they played that week. And true, the Pittsburgh Steelers get their share of attention, but since Pittsburgh — unlike other former steel towns — smartly embraced the semiconductor industry to replace its dying industrial base, it can’t fairly be compared to the rest of the Rust Belt.
The Bills and the Detroit Lions are both 2-0. But they are ranked at number 16 and number 11, respectively, on ESPN’s NFL Power Ranking, behind teams with split records. Why is Buffalo rated so low? ESPN is still skeptical of the Bills. "We'll find out if the Bills are for real this Sunday against the Patriots," the raters said. Well, of course; the Patriots are tough for anyone to beat. Buffalo fans are expecting a loss and hoping for an upset (we’re loyal, not delusional). But that’s a function of Tom Brady and the Patriots’ skill and talent, not Buffalo’s flukey recent success.
And the Buffalo quarterbacks don’t get treated much better. Sports announcers were wringing their hands this week over the fate of convicted dog torturer Michael Vick, treating the injured Philadelphia Eagles quarterback with the attention given to a wounded puppy — and without a trace of irony. Ryan Fitzpatrick turned an 18-point halftime deficit into a win for Buffalo last week against the Oakland Raiders, scoring touchdowns on each of Buffalo’s five second-half possessions. But a Harvard grad becoming a working-class town hero is the opposite of the American dream, football or otherwise, so he’ll never be a sportscasters’ pet.
Perhaps the networks and the announcers are just giving the fans what they want. It’s rare, for example, to see a Buffalo Bills or Cleveland Browns jersey on someone outside those cities (unless it’s on a member of the Rust Belt diaspora). But the Cowboys? You’ll see silver stars across the country. In baseball, the Yankees have a nationwide fan base. Is it a coincidence that the team consists of entitled, overpaid New Yorkers in pinstripes? They look like hedge fund managers.
So, this weekend, and probably for much of the season, we’ll continue to see a celebration of telegenic teams. But don’t count post-industrial America out.
Susan Milligan is a former Globe White House correspondent and Washington-based freelance writer.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images: Fans of the Buffalo Bills show support for their quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, last week.