WIESBADEN, Germany — Are the Buffalo Bills really the favorite NFL team of troops serving overseas?
Heading into Week 15 of the season, the Buffalo Bills have played in American Forces Network’s Fan’s Choice game of the week for eight of 13 games, starting in Week 3. Fan’s Choice games are selected by viewers who go to AFN’s Facebook page and vote for the game they most want to see broadcast on AFN-TV that week.
Games that are played in the 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time slots are eligible for Fan’s Choice voting. NFL games that are the only matchup during a given time slot, such as night games and those played on holidays, are not on the ballot.
This year, each week’s Fan’s Choice matchup is shown on the network’s new high-definition sports channel. The Bills, along with the New England Patriots, have had the most games aired in HD on AFN this season, since the HD channel debuted in Week 3 of the season.
The Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys have had the most games aired live overall by AFN, with 12 each.
Although Buffalo won its first three games, including a Week 3 victory over the Patriots, the Bills have since dropped to 5-8. Their record leaves some fans wondering how the Bills have been a Fan’s Choice selection eight times.
“How is it that almost every week the damn Buffalo Bills are picked to be the team of the week?” asked Greg Wallace, a Patriots fan and AFN viewer in Bamberg (The Patriots are 10-3 going into Week 15). “It has to be faked, because there are not that many people from northern New York stationed over here.”
Other fans on the network’s Facebook page accused Bills fans of drumming up votes on other websites from people who don’t have access to AFN.
Bills fans say every team’s fans have the same opportunities to cast ballots.
“It is an open vote. If you don’t like the results, then you need to vote and get others who think similarly to vote,” Capt. Chris Miano, currently deployed to Afghanistan with the Alaska-based 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, said in an email to Stars and Stripes. “Social media has made this very simple for even Jets fans to figure out,” he added, referring to the Bills’ division rivals. (The Jets are 8-5.)
AFN affiliate relations chief Larry Sichter agreed, adding the number of votes AFN receives every week, ranging from 1,000 to 1,500, doesn’t suggest there’s a large stateside influence.
“The whole thing is meant to have fun, get viewers involved,” Sichter said.
Sichter said the Fan’s Choice voting this year is a marked improvement over last year, when voters could go to AFN’s website and vote multiple times. He said the voting this year prevents people from making more than one entry, which AFN determined was happening with last year’s Fan’s Choice darlings, the New Orleans Saints.
But Bills fans aren’t ready to declare that AFN has scored a touchdown with its Fan’s Choice promotion..
Miano said AFN ran text during a Bills Fan’s Choice game a few weeks ago that encouraged viewers to go to AFN and vote for another team. AFN also ran a commercial that mentioned seeing a team that wouldn’t win the Super Bowl even if it could get there, referring to Bills squads who appeared in four straight Super Bowls, starting in 1991, but lost them all.
“It’s tough enough being a Bills fan, we don’t need AFN, a supposedly unbiased organization, joining in on making fun of our team,” Miano said. “Most people don’t understand how fully devastating losing those Super Bowls were to the city. … Most people, for example Cowboys fans, are not even from the city that their team represents, so they’ll never understand that.”
Sichter said the spots were meant to be humorous and to attract more people to vote in the Fan’s Choice.
“It made me laugh pretty good the first time I saw it, but I couldn’t believe that they ran it,” said Sgt. Daniel Phillips, a Carolina Panthers and San Diego Chargers fan with the Wiesbaden-based 66th Military Intelligence Brigade. “I’m sure that the Bills weren’t happy,” he added.
This weekend’s Patriots and Denver Broncos game, the winning Fan’s Choice matchup for Week 15, represents the second straight week that Tim Tebow and his comeback Broncos will be featured in the game chosen to air by viewers.
On the network’s Facebook page, one fan wrote, “ahhhh no bills..........gooooooooood!!!!!”
AFN officials point out that the Fan’s Choice game is one of many aired each week.
“We want to give them the same choices they have in the States,” Sichter said, noting that most weeks, AFN offers more live matchups than stateside networks, minus a subscription service.
Some troops appreciate the diversity, even if they can’t always watch the games they want.
Pfc. James Watson, a Pennsylvania native who just returned from Afghanistan, said he appreciated AFN showing some games more than once, because when he was out on a mission, he could watch the game after he returned.
“I got to watch the Steelers a lot, so I’m happy,” Watson said.
Sports planners at AFN say they try to give exposure to a lot of teams during the early weeks of the season, and as the playoff hunt intensifies, they focus on the games with the most impact.
“Everybody wants to see their team on AFN every week; we can’t do that,” Sichter said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Dan Blottenberger contributed to this report