Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Kelly: Bills still only NFL option for Toronto

NFL expansion to Toronto? Beyond cameos by the Buffalo Bills, not a chance. At least, not without a commitment from the city to build and pay for a massive new playpen to cavort in.

As the rain pelted down outside the Bandbox off Bremner Avenue a few hours before game time on Sunday, an old song was blasting out of the stadium speakers claiming the dream is still alive. Inside, the Buffalo Bills were preparing to stink the joint out against the Seattle Seahawks, another down note on yet another lost year.

And working the backrooms at the fifth regular-season iteration of this Bills in Toronto series, you quickly discover the viability of the National Football League dream here depends entirely on what images you choose to believe are real.

Expansion to Toronto? Not a chance.

At least, not without a commitment from the city to build -- and pay for -- a massive new playpen for our American cousins to cavort in.

Rogers Centre seats 55,000 but is a tiny place by NFL standards, not even in the same neighbourhood of venerable Soldier Field in Chicago, where the 61,500 capacity is the smallest among the league's current establishments -- the largest being 85,000 in Landover, Md., for the Washington Redskins.

Even with a new field in Toronto, three other cities have more NFL cachet -- Los Angeles, London, where the one regular-season contest per year there has never drawn less than 76,000, and Mexico City, where a dangerous crime situation is balanced by a huge, new potential audience.

England has done so well that there will be two games there in 2013 -- one with Jacksonville Jaguars as "host" and the other, the Minnesota Vikings.

Failed NFL audition

On top of all this, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said repeatedly the league won't expand for some years and that means L.A., finally building a new stadium, would more likely get a transferred team (Jacksonville, Minnesota, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams). It's been assumed by certain dreamers that expansion into L.A. would mean Toronto almost automatically jumps into play because the NFL won't go past 34 teams. But the centre of the Canadian Universe has failed its big audition, at least for the coming generation.

The NFL has noticed Buffalo's five regular-season games in Toronto against the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Redskins and Seahawks have neither sold out (without papering) nor captured the imagination of the local populace.

And don't believe the fans' complaints about ticket prices being too high didn't prick up any ears, either. A willingness to pay whatever it takes for the privilege of hosting the Church of the National Football League is a tenet the owners there have built all of their most recent stadium and expansion decisions on.

One more problem: the NFL does not allow corporate ownership, so Rogers, Bell Media, etc., are out of the running. Who in the Big Smoke has the big cojones to pony up more than a billion loonies to get into this game?

Still, while the Bills in Toronto Series has been widely panned as a failure by critics, it certainly hasn't been from the perspective of team management. The Bills have improved their Southern Ontario season-ticket base, opened up new promotional markets and begun the process of convincing the good people around Buffalo that keeping the team in Western New York means having to accept they are a regional entity now and that region extends up to rival Toronto.

Bills fans hate the idea of giving up a home game, especially to a place that seems filled with far more fans of other teams than the prancing Bison. And for the love of Mary and Joseph, it's indoors, where the late-season advantage of freezing your toes off by Lake Erie has traditionally been a key.

Hinges on Wilson's health

Much of Toronto's NFL dream is wrapped up in what happens to the Bills when Ralph Wilson, the 94-year-old owner, dies, something that people are assured will happen eventually, even if those who know him are convinced he could live to 110. The family has already said it won't keep the team after that, putting in play a process that one long-time Bills writer believes may be up to 18 months of working out who will own the team. It could be someone who wants to move the team elsewhere in the United States, but there are limits to where that could be.

L.A. would certainly be in line.

However, Goodell happens to be from Jamestown, N.Y., hard by your Buffalo, and he's not going to want to see his childhood team move. Plus, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is thinking of a presidential run in 2016 and he's not about to wear a lost Bills franchise.

Word abounds a new stadium -- or a massively rebuilt old one -- are in the cards for the Queen City and that would help keep the club around (the Gov is apparently helping things along).

Which brings us back to Toronto, where Rogers seems willing to provide its NFL neighbour with home-game revenues larger than what a gate brings in at the Ralph, while expanding the reach of the team. A new deal is expected by March.

So get used to the Buffalo/Toronto Bills, folks. This is your NFL.

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Catherine Bosley Nigel Hawthorne

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