It’s time to pull plug on Bills-in-Toronto, damnitall

BILLS

BILLS

 

Granted there were long lines at security still, but this was the Rogers Centre
when the Bills took the field on Sunday vs. the Falcons.

- – - – -

It’s time for the Buffalo Bills and Rogers Media Inc. to pull the plug on the Bills-in-Toronto series, damnit.

They gave it a good try, but it’s not happenin’.

Hey, I’m an NFL columnist based in Toronto and it brings me no joy to write this, believe me. But the series has been a failure for every party involved. Some would say an embarrassing failure.

It’s getting worse too, not better, and no one’s to blame. Certainly not Bills-in-Toronto executive director Greg Albrecht. Same goes for Bills president/CEO Russ Brandon and Albrecht’s counterpart on the Bills, VP for strategic planning Mary Owen.

Short of the Bills turning into a powerhouse next season, the series is simply not fixable in the short-term.

I thought the series would finally turn the corner this year. I thought wrong.

Perhaps Brandon has come to the same conclusion. On his weekly radio spot Wednesday morning on Buffalo’s WGR 550-AM, he surprisingly said the following when asked about the series:

“One of the things I said to you and the fans on Jan. 1 of this year was I was going to review every phase of this operation, and this series comes within that framework. There is a full evaluation that will take place on all of our business (including) what this series means, and I’m going to look at it very closely.

“It has been a challenged market there and certainly has not translated into enough wins for us there.”

That’s the first time anyone from the Bills — outside of players, of course — has publicly questioned the validity of the Toronto series. If Brandon had no thought of perhaps pulling the plug, he didn’t have to say all that.

Can the Bills pull out of the agreement? I’m told both sides would have to agree to do so, otherwise it’s ironclad.

Who can blame the Bills if they choose to get out of it?

BILLS

BILLS

The 2013 edition of Bills-in-Toronto was worse than even last year’s, when hundreds of Seattle Seahawks fans roared with delight as their team thumped the Bills 50-17.

On Sunday, hundreds if not thousands of fans of the 2-9 Atlanta Falcons — many adorned in red or black team jerseys — cheered as loudly as Bills supporters at times.

If faraway Seattle and Atlanta can muster nearly as many fans as the Bills, who can’t?

Just as disappointing, Sunday’s crowd was slightly smaller than last year’s — 38,969 compared to 40,770 a year ago — and the total is all the poorer because last year the weather was horrible (sheets of cold afternoon rain discouraged walk-up sales) and this year the Bills still had a playoff pulse.

And as the Western New York press has reported to death since Sunday, if the Bills-Falcons game instead had been played outdoors at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, odds are an actual homefield advantage would have resulted in a Bills win.

As it was, Buffalo lost to Atlanta in overtime, 34-31, to all but seal the Bills’ 14th consecutive season without a playoff berth.

It’s difficult after six years of Bills-in-Toronto to view the series as anything but a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose-lose scenario for the six parties involved: the Bills, Rogers, the Rogers Centre, Toronto, Western New York and the NFL.

Here’s why:

 

1.    FOR THE BILLS

For public consumption, the reason the franchise opted late last decade to relocate one of its eight annual regular-season home games to Toronto is for “regionalization.”

That is, to allow the club to tap into the “Golden Horseshoe” — the 9 million Ontarians jammed around the west end of Lake Ontario, from the Greater Toronto Area to the Niagara Region.

Brandon has claimed the number of season tickets bought by Ontarians at Ralph Wilson Stadium shot up 44% after three years of the Bills-in-Toronto series. Maybe so.

But anecdotally I don’t know of anyone who has begun going to Bills games in the past six years, let alone as a result of the Bills-in-Toronto series. Central Ontarians I know who attend games at the Ralph — annual one-timers and season-ticket holders alike — have been going since the Super Bowl years or earlier, and have never stopped going. Such as Don McGillivray, Peter Coates and Jim Stevens.

The biggest reason the Bills are contracting out one home game a year to Toronto is not to troll for new fans as for the cold, hard cash.

Rogers paid the club $78 million over the first five-year deal — for five regular-season games and two preseason games. That equated to $11.14 million, clear, per game for the Bills — more than double what they net from each home game at the Ralph.

I’m told the new five-year deal sees Rogers paying the Bills “significantly” less than $78 million. Probably in the ballpark of $50 million, for five regular-season games and one yet-to-be-determined preseason game.

To pull the plug on the last four years of the deal, then, would cost the Bills (guessing) in the ballpark of $15 million. Some $3-4 million per year is not significant when you consider a new river of coins starts pouring into Orchard Park next year, thanks to the league’s new $28-billion TV contracts.

On the field, the Bills have dropped five of six of these supposed home games — a .167 winning percentage, worse even than the club’s awful overall success rate this century (.400).

That alone is a reason for the Bills to pull out. This franchise, of all NFL franchises, cannot afford any self-imposed obstacles to winning.

 

2.    FOR WESTERN NEW YORK

Bills fans in Western New York boycott the Toronto games practically en masse.

One Buffalonian who personally knows dozens of season-ticket holders at the Ralph told me last week that two — TWO — attend the Bills-in-Toronto games.

Western New Yorkers always will view buying tickets to the relocated games as tantamount to subsidizing the franchise’s future possible relocation to Toronto, hence they’ll never get on board.

The state of New York and Erie County lose tax revenues because of the lost annual home game, too.

 

 3.    FOR ROGERS

If, as reported elsewhere, it really is the goal of Edward Rogers III — son of company founder Ted and deputy chairman of the Rogers empire — to some day lead an NFL ownership group, how in gawd’s name can this endeavour be helping him in that cause? His surname effectively is all over those empty blue seats on game day.

From an NFL standpoint, the Rogers name in Toronto for a long time will be synonymous with overpriced tickets (thanks to Year 1, when the company ridiculously overpriced tickets to an average of $183), papered crowds (more giveaways went out late last week, to “loyal” Rogers Communications customers) and months of advertisements that over-trumpet a steak not worth the sizzle.

 

 4.    FOR THE ROGERS CENTRE

Former Toronto Sun colleague Craig Daniels wrote it best about 20 years ago. The SkyDome, he said, “is the place where atmosphere goes to die.”

Joe Carter’s dramatic home run won a World Series for the Blue Jays there in 1993, but it killed apparently for all time the ability of that empty-crater of a stadium to create buzz ever again.

When, years from now, the site of the Rogers Centre is home to a dozen more downtown high-rise condos, the Bills-in-Toronto series will be raised as one of the chief examples of how coldly impersonal the stadium could be, unless filled to its retractable roof with rabid fans.

Said one Bills season-ticket holder I know: “I’d rather drive two hours each way to experience a Bills game at the Ralph than watch one game literally across the street from where I live in that f—— morgue.”

So if most Bills fans in Toronto don’t even want to attend these games, and as long as the Toronto masses are eschewing the Bills bandwagon while the team continues to lose, then who are these games being played for?

 

 5.    FOR TORONTO

North America’s third largest metropolitan market is deserving of a franchise in North America’s premier, most popular sports league.

The failure of the Bills-in-Toronto series, to whatever degree, has to be undermining the belief in the eyes of Americans, of NFL people and especially of prospective NFL owners looking to bug out of their current town, that Toronto has a voracious appetite for NFL football — and would pack a new, proper stadium in support of its own franchise.

Why has Bills-in-Toronto failed, then?

What few people outside of Toronto and Buffalo know is this. The two cities’ residents pretty much despise one another.

Buffalo sees itself as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — and Toronto as Boy George and Culture Club.

Toronto sees itself as a world-class, five-star restaurant and Buffalo as a soon-to-be shut-down greasy spoon.

Both look down on the other. The dislike is palpable, and seared into the rivalry between each city’s NHL teams — Buffalo’s Sabres and Toronto’s Maple Leafs — and their fans.

This is not an insignificant reason why Torontonians aren’t supporting a Buffalo football team, and why Bills fans in Buffalo won’t spend a football dime to help them.

 

 6.    FOR THE NFL

The league is lovestruck with the thought of expanding internationally. The NFL triumphs every tiny inroad into the U.K.

By contrast, there aren’t any Bills-in-Toronto series benchmarks for the NFL to brag about.

The NFL dislikes embarrassments. Intensely. And this fast is becoming one.

As much as commissioner Roger Goodell, himself originally a Western New Yorker, probably has no desire to see the Bills ever leave Buffalo, he and many of the owners who employ him must look at Toronto as a market not to be spoiled.

Well, it’s spoiling.

Damnit.

BILLS

BILLS

 

15 thoughts on “It’s time to pull plug on Bills-in-Toronto, damnitall

  1. cromartie

    Or, and here’s a novel idea, your fair city lacks the capacity to support any team on anything more than a casually sustainable basis other than the Maple Leafs. You’re the Miami of the north with a hockey fetish, essentially. Hardly NFL material despite your sheer numbers.

  2. Dan Q

    As a recent Buffalo Bils season ticket holder for the last 3 years (I stopped this year only due to schedue constraints) and avid Bills supporter from Toronto (Newmarket) we finally have a local opinion that is 100% correct! John Kryk you nailed it! I only go to the Bills games in Toronto for one reason and one reason only – I bring my son to those games and would rather travel 2 hours… more than likely 3 or 4 hours to see a real NFL game in Buffalo.

    In Buffalo you have an atmomsphere… for better or worse… It is an NFL game. When in Toronto I bring my son (reluctantly) only so he does not have to endure the trip (He’s 7). The Toronto series is not in any way a true depiction of the NFL heartbeat in Toronto but rather a distaste each city has for each other. The game in Buffalo has what every NFL fan goes for… tailgaiting, passion, relevance to the team. In Toronto which although they try to be “Buffalo’s 2nd city” just does not compare. Yes, has the Bills recent struggles contrbuted to that failure – for sure. But “real” Bills fans dont want the Bills to move. We ARE Bills fans not “Toronto” Bills fans.

    We know at any point that Ralph Wilson’s tenure as the owner can end at anytime. We dont need the constant reminder when this game occurs. There is nothing at the Toronto game which can remotely resemble a true Bills home game. Nothing! We know this is a money grab and we accept it for what it is. Ask any Bills season ticket holder who resides inthe Southern Ontario market and not one of them will admit to wanting this team to move to Toronto. That is why we stay away. There are tons of die hard Bills fans I know personally who do not go to this game simply to protest the game for Buffalo….. and we live in Toronto.

    The Bills are a culture, an experience, a local team that stands proud. We dont want Toronto. We despise it. It is not the football we want to see or welcome. I will always understand the reasons for Buffalo to want to involve themselves in this series – $. But I will never support it when I can pack my car, paint my face and cheer my team in the Ralph, where we all want the team to stay.

    Signed,

    Every Bills fan in Southern Ontario

  3. Bill Collins

    I’m a born-and-raised Buffalonian and longtime Bills season-ticket holder. Agree with everything you posit except for the bit about Buffalo people hating Toronto people. Not true. I have never, ever in my life heard anyone here express animosity for Torontonians and in fact, quite the opposite. Yes, of course we hate the Leafs but that enmity does not extend to the good people of Toronto. As cosmopolitan as Toronto is, I find the people refreshingly down to earth and nice and they are completely at home when visitng the “City of No Illusions”…Buffalo, New York. Cheers!

  4. Martin E

    I’m an 11 year Bills season ticket holder and as rabid a Bills fan as there is. I’ve been a GTA resident most of my life and this article comes as close to capturing the failures of this series than most. That said, I think there’s still a terrible misunderstanding at who is to blame in this.

    The first press conference to announce the series. The infamous Ralph Wilson/Ted Rogers presser where they opened laughed at fans and mocked people for ripping them off, all the while belittling the city of Buffalo. The impact of that debacle still resonates today.

    The Bills also share in the blame and the buck stops with Russ Brandon. I know you want to grow the market, but understand your core market first. Work with your loyal Southern Ontario fans. Part of them are your core market (Like me!). God, I wanted this series to work. I could have been like inviting the rest of Bills Mafia over “to my place”. Watch what we can do in our backyard. It didn’t have to be a Toronto vs Buffalo thing. This could have been Toronto (Bills fans) opening their doors and showing them what we can do. Marketing is the issue more than the product has been.

    Oh…and I didn’t forget about you Rogers. You’ve been the biggest problem of all. I am a Rogers Customer and a Bills season ticket holder. In theory, I am the easiest person in the world to get down to a game. You can’t even engage me. Think about that for a second. You can’t get the local hardcore fan to show up. Yeah, you think Greg Albrecht and his team screwed this up just a bit? First you priced tickets at a ridiculous price point. You do realize Buffalo is about 2hrs away, right? And you think you can share a 400% premium on tickets? No, you’re right. It’s better that you give 45,000 seats away. What do I know?

    I am angry. This is my team. And you have all let me down. You’ve completely screwed this up and made everyone look like amateurs and idiots. Things may be too far gone at this point, but it didn’t have to be this way. This could have and SHOULD have worked. Shame on all of you.

  5. Rich

    Mr. Kryk,

    This is a well-written piece that does a wonderful job describing why the series doesn’t work. Way to show no bias and respect both sides in this helpless endeavor. I will read your work regularly now.

  6. Ron

    One of the important elements that was ignored in the column concerning Russ Brandon’s latest set of comments on this series was that he was equally concerned about was that even with one game removed from the Buffalo home schedule, only two of those were sell outs and in order to be able to be seen on local television, the team had to buy up the balance of the tickets. We know the team is not very good but even with 15-20% sales already generated from the Southern Ontario region , they are STILL not selling out at the “Ralph”. On the surface, it looks to me like if this team wasn’t on the border they would never sell out and like it or not that is why they cooked up this deal with Rogers, to get the guaranteed cash. When Rogers indicated right from the outset that they wanted an NFL team in Toronto, of course, the Buffalo fans and media put two and two together went ballistic and it continues to this day thinking that as soon as Ralph passes on the team is as good as gone from Buffalo and excuses are running rampant as to why this arrangement should not continue.

    The reality is the NFL is a multi-billion dollar corporation whose main purpose is to maximize revenue. Clearly, despite the rhetoric and even in Buffalo, they really aren’t that concerned about fan responses. Fans mistakenly think that even with amongst the lowest ticket prices in the league, selling out at the Ralph guarantees the team will stay in Buffalo. Realistically, with a smaller and smaller percentage of that revenue coming from ticket sales, large corporate dollars and other ancillary revenue is becoming a larger part of the revenue stream for teams, something the Bills will probably never have and the deal with Rogers was one of Ralph Wilson’s few alternatives to generate those extra dollars.

    The Bills brass had five years to assess the situation yet, they still signed for another five and no one twisted their arm to do it. So now in to the first year of the second agreement. they are reassessing the situation? Frankly, it just looks like some more rhetoric coming from a team making it look like they want to appease the fans and local media while at the same time deflecting the focus of what will be the fourteenth straight year of mediocrity.

  7. menisino

    According to most of the Canadian -Buffalo Bills fans comments here, just tells me they are “fans” without a pulse. They need fans from Buffalo to create the atmosphere as they look on with their mouths aghast. “Look son ,look, look, look, aren’t these fans something else? You fans, simply put, lack hometown pride….you have look across the border to get your “jollies”. Pretty pathetic ,actually.

  8. Ron

    “Hometown Pride”? Perhaps you might not have noticed but the Bills are NOT Toronto’s team. The thought that a place such as Buffalo has to define its very character and identity by the success or failure(mostly failure) of a football team is what is actually pretty pathetic. Its entertainment, nothing more.

  9. Pat MaGroin

    Great article Mr Kryk, best one yet about this failed experiment.
    The fans from Southern Ontario that come to Orchard Park are some of the rowdiest and best drinkers, making for a great atmosphere. Watching a Bills game at the Skydome is awful, nothing like the real NFL game experience. Oh, one more thing – the Leafs suck.

  10. Ron Wheeler

    Canadians are NFL fans first…and follow a particular franchise second. The biggest fan base here is for the Pittsburgh Steelers; but even if the Steelers played in Toronto once a year, the result would echo the Bills disinterest. Rather than attending a lousy game between 2 teams out of contention NFL Canadians fill the sports bars. Real Sports could repurpose the Rogers Center into the world’s largest sports bar and make MORE money by simply showing all the games at once.

  11. Chaz

    Absolutely agree this was the dumbest idea to outsource a game to TO. It was only because of Ted Roger’s belief he could further reap huge profits from rabid sports fans. Well, Ted (may you rest in peace), you were WRONG! How bleak and cold does the Skydome look inside, even with the roof open. Who’d want to visit that monstrosity? The Bills’ poor performance, lack of a credible opponent and a dreary place of play all equal one thing…shuffle back to Buffalo. And about time.

  12. BillHood

    Go Argos. The NFL deals up boring football on a small field with 4 downs. The CFL is rich in Canadian football history that unites the country.

    Let the American from Buffalo go play with themselves.

  13. T SAmmut

    How do you expect these games to generate any buzz…there always 2 loser teams on the field. At least get a popular opponent eg Dallas, Green Bay, NE, Pitts etc so a least there will only be 1 loser team on the field. Buffalo has not had a NFL team in almost 20 years so you would think not having a home game would be a God sent.

  14. natrx

    The main reason the Bills in Toronto sucks is ROGERS.

    The pitiful attempt at the money grab, carefully orchestrated beer ‘tents’ and crap ‘tailgating’ parties, again, all to make an extra greedy buck off the fans is what turned me off and all my friends (prime male demographic). Never will we attempt to please Rogers.

    Rogers saw it like this:
    -Thousands of Ontarians love to go to Buffalo to watch a Bills game
    -Many more Ontarians likely want to go weekly but they can’t since it’s quite far
    -They’re very enthusiastic. So are Buffalo fans.
    -Buffalo fans would love to come to a more modern, infra structured city like toronto.
    -Basically, NFL = Jackpot. NFL Fans = Rabid.
    -Ontarians have more money and will spend more vs Buffalo Fans.
    -Let’s make ALOT of money off it. It’ll be like the Leafs x 1000. We’ll OVER charge (especially arena seats) and set up/control everything.
    -It’s a WIN WIN!

    For that, Rogers deserves to PAY and be Embarrassed. The Bills and NFL with it for going along and being taken with such a hair brained schemed.

  15. J

    The fact is that Rogers refuses to cater to the people who make the games fun. Working and middle class men who like to drink. They bring along their girlfriends and those girls bring their friends.

    This idea that families and guys on business making atmosphere and the area fun is a load of BS. There is nothing fun about kids and suits at sports games. Its not the kids that kill it but their parents and MLSE killed the Leafs at ACC with that blended crowd.

    When you cater to the suit and baby in tow crowd, as shown by MLSE teams, the atmosphere is brutal, boring and not worth the price of admission.

    All this could be cured by some cheap drinks, a 40 dollar seat section that is meant to be rowdy and the section not having helicopter suits and their yellow jacket security guards hushing you when you yell defense or standing and applauding after a big play. Put the suits and familes in their own section, quiet sitting, food service and all the sitting they want.

    I started going to bills games regularly at the Ralph after the bears game and I can tell you that I would rather spend four hrs driving to and from buffalo for a game than commute 30 minutes to waste my time at skydome. Personally I dont want to hear about juniour and his tests on monday, or the business deal next week or how nice it is sally is beginning to crawl.

    Go to a fricken leafs game or a starbucks. At the Ralph.. people talk football, drink beer, tell jokes, laugh and laugh. They tail gate, they are into the game.

    Its why a dying town can draw people regionally to a team that sucks. Its is really really really fun.

    Bills in Toronto is the worst sporting atmosphere and Im a former Jays, Argos, Raptors, Bills and current TFC ticket holder. Ok its not worse than the Leafs at the ACC but close.

    All this speculation about what is wrong, it all comes down to having fun and its not fun at Skydome. Until they stop trying to serve a crowd that doest care about football which is stifling the colourful nature of NFL game days, then the NFL in any way shape or form is doomed.

    Leave the kids at home, forget about doing business, crack some beers, cook some food, talk football and tell jokes. Thats is what NFL gameday is about.

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