Mary Owen, Bills executive VP of strategic planning
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Bills-in-Toronto VI is taking place this year just a week after the Grey Cup. On U.S. Thanksgiving weekend.
Seems like the ideal time of year for the Buffalo Bills to play their one annually relocated home game at the Rogers Centre, no?
Canadian fans have football front and centre on their minds, and Americans have time to make a weekend out of a visit to Toronto.
Sales of Bills-in-Toronto tickets to Western New Yorkers are up 5% this year, and one reason might be that some are taking advantage of the holiday to spend two or three days in Toronto.
Problem is, the Grey Cup isn’t always played on the Sunday before U.S. Thanksgiving, as this year. Sometimes the two fall on the same weekend, as next year.
Still, it would probably help the Bills-in-Toronto series if the game were played on, or about, the same weekend every year.
The Bills agree.
“We are not in charge of the schedule at all; the NFL is in charge of the schedule, and we understand that, and Rogers understands that,” Mary Owen, Bills executive vice-president of strategic planning, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
“But we are trying to have consistency in the game weekend going forward. So as much as possible we’d like to have it the same time each year.
“And we don’t want to step on the Grey Cup in any way, and we want to be deferential to the CFL in their schedule.”
Owen has been the Bills’ point person on the series since it began in 2008. She and her counterpart at Rogers Media Inc., series executive director Greg Albrecht, are pleased with ticket sales in light of the disastrous first few years of the Bills-in-Toronto series, when tickets were overpriced and Rogers, as a result, flooded downtown Toronto with freebies to artificially fill up the place.
Since last year, tickets are substantially cheaper — most are under $100 — and no more comps are given out.
“I think getting the pricing right was very important,” Owen said. “We had a lot to overcome last year ,when we basically had to retrain the market and right-size the pricing and say, look, we know you love the NFL, come out and watch the game.
“And watching all those people show up having paid for their ticket was very comforting for us to understand that there really is that demand for the NFL in Toronto. And again this year we’ve seen (such a demand). So we will have a full building of people who want to be there, and paid to be there.”
Regarding reports earlier this week about a potential future ownership group including rocker Jon Bon Jovi and executives of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Owen politely declined to comment.
And who can blame her. She’s the niece of 95-year-old Bills owner Ralph Wilson, and all future ownership speculation has a callous tinge to it, as it supposes his death.
But asked whether the franchise’s future ownership creates confusion in Toronto with regard to this series, Owen said: “We’re doing the best job we can to continue to regionalize the franchise, into both Rochester and Southern Ontario. We understand that there are 5-million-plus people in Toronto — and a million between Buffalo and Toronto — and that our job is to make sure we’re developing that fanbase.”
The Bills haven’t made the playoffs in 14 years, and the team’s lack of success has indeed been a large factor in the tough sell in the Toronto market for these annual Bills games, Owen said. But that is changing.
“A lot of our fans from Southern Ontario remember Jim (Kelly) and Andre (Reed) and Thurman (Thomas), and obviously Doug Flutie in the late ’90s, when the team was winning and when every single game was competitive, and we had star power.
“We’re getting back there with Coach (Doug) Marrone and (GM) Doug Whaley now in charge. We’re on the right path, and we really feel it in Buffalo. There’s a really good sense of energy about the team, so we hope that that translates as we move along.”