North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Not buying the Bills in Toronto

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Sunday’s Buffalo/Washington game was awful, horrible and boring beyond words. It was such a dull game it should count as an act of international aggression. It was Must Not See TV. It was brutal.


With any luck, it’ll be one of the last Bills games in Toronto.


When the series started a few years ago, in 2007, the inclination was somewhat towards optimism. The series was conceived by a group that included heavy hitters like Larry Tanenbaum of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and Ted Rogers. It came at a time when the Argonauts were doing poorly (they’d finish 2007 with a 4-14 record) and Rogers was upping their financial commitments to the Blue Jays: they had recently added AJ Burnett, BJ Ryan and Frank Thomas to the team.


Enter the Bills. They’re a team with a sizable chunk of fans in Ontario and, it appeared, an uncertain future. Owner Ralph Wilson was just shy of 90 when negotiations started; once he left the Bills, it was far from a given that the team would stay in Buffalo. After all, Buffalo’s one of the NFL’s smallest markets and it’s shrinking, too. Between 2000 and 2010, Buffalo’s population dropped by over 10 per cent. Ralph Wilson Stadium is old, too: it first hosted games in 1973, nearly 40 years ago. Earlier this year, the National Football Post ranked it 20th among all NFL stadiums, saying, “When it comes to architecture and amenities, RWS is going to rank at the bottom of the list.”


It was a great match: a team with a bad stadium, a group that wanted to bring pro football to theirs and was willing to throw money around. It was such a good match that the NFL issued a statement saying the Bills were not going to permanently move to Hogtown.


But nobody was really suggesting that was an option. While the Rogers Centre is an okay place for an exhibition game, it’s capacity of 54,000, is too small to regularly hold NFL games. A new stadium would solve that problem, but who’s going to build it? Toronto’s government is slashing budgets all around – the gravy train, as their mayor put it – so don’t expect a hand there. Why build one? For just eight NFL dates a year? The Argonauts are locked into a lease at the Centre and the TC have their own stadium.


The games have always been a way to make money. Tickets at a Toronto Bills game are more expensive than a game in Buffalo (at one point, costing three times as much: $180 Canadian to $51 US). A Rochester newspaper was blunt, calling the games cash cows. Indeed, the Bills made $78 million from the five-year deal. How much is that? A 2011 Forbes valuation put their yearly operating income at $40.9 million.


It’s been successful on that front. It’s less successful on the field. Sunday’s win was the first time the Bills won in Toronto. It came only a few days after Buffalo’s George Wilson suggested that it’s not really a home game, because the fans don’t care who wins.


And Wilson’s right. Toronto is not a Bills town. It’s not even a football town. It’s also not a Raptors, Argonaut or Blue Jay town. It’s a Leaf town. Hockey will always come first here. Yes, NFL fans will show up for the game, but that doesn’t suppose they’re Buffalo fans. Just take the moment when Scott Chandler jumped into the stands and was greeted by indifference (I distinctly remember one guy filming it on his smartphone).


At best – and one could argue with the Bills 5-2 record, this is their best – the games feel like a neutral field novelty. Despite how good Buffalo’s been this year, Sunday’s win featured a less-than-packed house.


Next year is the final year of the agreement. A lot has changed from when it was first signed. Ted Rogers is dead, the Canadian dollar has strengthened and the Bills are suddenly good. A new agreement would likely cost Rogers more than $78 million – and that’s even if the Bills want to keep giving up home games.


Simply put, the whole series feels like a tease. It’s a taste of NFL action, but without any of the payoff. It costs more than a game in Buffalo, but has little of the atmosphere: tailgating, packed stands, cold weather. It’s a sanitized, suit-wearing, straight-laced version of pro football, the equivalent of Mitt Romney. Yes, the Bills finally won a game in the cavernous Rogers Centre. But they couldn’t even make that interesting.


The Toronto experiment isn’t working: why pay more for games that feel like they mean less? That the players don’t even like? Next year’s series should be the last.


Written by M.

November 1, 2011 at 11:40 pm

One Response

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  1. […] I’ve long held the opinion that the NFL is never coming full-time to Toronto. There’s a bunch of reasons why: Toronto ratings don’t mean jack to American networks and by extension would damage national TV deals; the Rogers Centre is too small by the NFL’s standards (and it a bad football stadium, to boot); the impact it’d have on the CFL, more than occasionally useful for developing NFL prospects; the logistical problems of building a new, NFL-sized stadium in the GTA (Where’s it going to go? Who’s going to pay for it? Who is going to use it the rest of the time?). An extension to the Toronto series is possibly forthcoming – a recent Toronto Star story says it could come “early next year” – but with Rogers heavy focus on the Blue Jays, I can’t say I’d be surprised if this one languishes away. […]

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