UPDATED Wednesday at 12:30 pm EST with new information, re future of the series, and with quotes from Russ Brandon both at his news conference and in a telephone interview, and with quotes from Rogers Media Inc president Keith Pelley.
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The Buffalo Bills have indeed pulled the plug on the club’s Toronto series — temporarily, and maybe permanently.
The NFL team and Rogers Media Inc. announced in a joint statement Wednesday morning that the Bills-in-Toronto series has been “postponed,” and that the 2014 game has been relocated back to the Bills’ home: Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.
A source in the position to know told Sun Media that as of now the Toronto series is scheduled to resume in 2015. Four regular-season games and one preseason game are still contracted to be played, per the five-year series extension signed in January 2013.
But further talks between the Bills and Rogers are planned to address the future of the series. The NFL will be included in those discussions, the source said.
Thus, it is possible the series won’t ever resume, if that’s what the parties eventually decide.
Sun Media reported exclusively in December that under terms of the five-year Bills-in-Toronto extension, neither side can unilaterally pull out of the arrangement.
A source on Wednesday said no money is exchanging hands in the mutually agreed-upon postponement.
Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon was non-committal about the series’ future at his Wednesday morning news conference, saying only that a “full evaluation” of it will take place this year.
In a telephone interview with Sun Media after the news conference, Brandon elaborated.
“It’s a one-year postponement to go into a deeper dive of evaluation about the future,” Brandon said. “We’ll see with our partners what can be done to enhance the experience for our fans, and see how it plays out. But we will have a comprehensive review of everything and determine the future.”
Asked if the Bills approached Rogers after the season to kill the series entirely, Brandon told Sun Media: “We talk to our partners on a continual basis, and took a top-line analysis of where the series was to date, and decided with the leadership at Rogers that we needed to go into an evaluation mode for the year to determine the outgoing years. So we’ll see where that evaluation takes us.”
In a telephone interview Rogers Media president Keith Pelley said only that, “We have a long-standing relationship with the Bills, and that will continue with our partnership this year. We will work closely with them in anticipation of future games at Rogers Centre.”
Bills fans in Western New York — who almost universally despise the relocation of one home game per year to Toronto’s Rogers Centre, as has been contracted since 2008 — now have to fork out 14.3% more for season tickets this year, for the added eighth game at the Ralph.
As an example, season-ticket holders in the lower bowl near the end zone pay $60 apiece. So they’re on the hook in 2014 for another $120 per pair. Most Bills fans will happily pay the extra money.
This will be the first season since 2007 the Bills will have eight regular-season home games. The club has had great difficulty in selling out late-season games throughout the current 14-year playoff drought, even over the past last six years when there were only seven games at the Ralph.
In his telephone interview, Brandon said “we certainly will stress-test the Buffalo market, having 70,000 additional seats coming back into the marketplace.
“We’re going to have a lot of inventory to move. Hopefully our product on the field continues to improve.”
In a joint statement announcing Wednesday’s news, Brandon and Pelley said:
“The Buffalo Bills and Rogers are committed to delivering a first-class NFL experience to Canadians. As such, we have postponed for one year the scheduled 2014 regular season game at Rogers Centre in Toronto, and that game will return to Ralph Wilson Stadium. We will use this time to collectively evaluate opportunities to enhance future games.
“We are committed to continuing our partnership and have secured a robust sponsorship agreement for the 2014 season that will bring Canadian NFL fans visibility and access to the Bills.
“The sponsorship includes ticketing, merchandising, media exposure, and a newly created Canada House, near Ralph Wilson Stadium, that will serve as the official pre-game Canadian tailgate zone for all Bills home games.
“The NFL remains very popular in Canada and we are dedicated to enriching the experience for the fans.”
Sun Media exclusively reported on Jan. 3 that a meeting had been arranged between the Bills and Rogers for the second week of January, but that meeting was postponed.
In early December, Brandon had publicly questioned whether the series should continue. That was three days after Buffalo’s narrow, disastrous overtime loss to Atlanta on Dec. 1 at Rogers Centre that effectively snuffed out the Bills’ last playoff hopes.
Another disappointing Rogers Centre crowd that day featured almost as many Falcons fans as Bills fans. Sun Media later reported that, despite assurances from both the Bills and Rogers, freebies were given out to help fill the domed stadium. Yet still only 38,969 showed up, at least 7,000 short of a sellout.
Last week Sun Media reported that the Bills had to decide by this week whether to pull the plug on the series, at least for this year, because season-ticket renewals were being mailed out, and both the club and fans needed to know if there were seven regular-season home games or eight.
The Bills have lost five of the six games played in Toronto, including all four held in December.
Bills players have been vocal about disliking the hollow, neutral-site atmosphere. One of the most outspoken, centre Eric Wood, tweeted the following after hearing Wednesday’s news:
“We got our 8 home games back with no game in Toronto this year.. Now we have to make the most of it!”
Tweeted receiver Stevie Johnson: “Love my Torontonians but having 1 more game at The Ralph, packed with BillsManiacs, is big!”
Brandon said at his Wednesday news conference that one of the best things to come out of the Toronto series is that, thanks to marketing initiatives, Southern Ontarians now buy 18% of the tickets at Ralph Wilson Stadium, now eclipsing the following from the nearby Rochester area (16%).
In his telephone interview, Brandon said when the Toronto series started in 2008, the number of Southern Ontarians coming to Bills games was about half as large as now.
“We’re very please about that, and just looking to build upon that,” Brandon said. “That’s really what the intention of the series was — a great fan development tool for us, while at the same point taking a significant amount of (ticket) inventory out of the Buffalo market.”