Paying the bills

Will Buffalo’s beloved football team move north, or will any NFL franchise do?

Paying the bills

The message is as tightly controlled as a fourth-down running play. Rogers Communications remains focused on the seven games remaining in its deal with the Buffalo Bills, says Phil Lind, vice-chairman of the company and a lifelong fan of the National Football League. It is determined to break even on its five-year, US$78-million pact and rejoices in the chance to bring the biggest of the big leagues to its own backyard. But the devil is in the qualifiers. “We have no specific plans—at least that we’re willing to disclose—about moving any team anywhere,” he says, tapping the time-worn wooden table that serves as his desk. “In a general sense, philosophically, does this bring Toronto closer to an NFL franchise? Sure. Of course it does.”

That “willing to disclose” bit is the sort of thing that gets heavy mileage in Buffalo these days. Since the Bills announced nine months ago that they would play three exhibition and five regular-season games north of the border, fears have run rampant in the downtrodden city that latte-sipping Toronto was angling for its last beloved icon, a middling football team that attracts 73,000 rabid fans a game to its ageing shrine, Ralph Wilson Stadium, for afternoons of beer-fuelled worship.

It turns out things are less catastrophic than the Bills faithful suspect. In a wide-ranging interview last week, Lind confirmed that Rogers (whose media holdings include Maclean’s) would like to augment the existing agreement before it expires in 2012, adding at least one more regular season game per year to be played at the Rogers Centre. “Eight is probably not enough,” he says. “At least two [regular season] games a year would be desirable from our standpoint.” But the assumption that Toronto intends to poach Buffalo’s team has slowly given way to the obvious fact that co-hosting Bills games may only be a step in the city’s long march toward NFL membership. The so-called “Bills in Toronto” series “shows the league that there’s interest here,” Lind shrugs. “It’s not a Bills town, necessarily. But it’s an NFL town, for sure.”

What that bodes for the future is anyone’s guess. The league is taxed enough these days keeping its existing teams healthy in a declining economy, while the absence of a franchise in Los Angeles remains top priority for expansion or relocation. Next week, Toronto will host a regular season game between the Bills and the Miami Dolphins in what is widely viewed as an audition for the billionaires’ club of NFL ownership. Yet the first game in the series—a pre-season bout between the Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers—drew criticism for the bite it took out of fans’ pocketbooks (tickets were available only as part of multi-game packages, with average prices for the Steelers’ game at $183), and for the estimated 10,000 seats that had to be papered over with giveaways and discounts.

Lind says the company has taken those lessons to heart (“We could have done it better”), and next week’s game was at press time close to being sold out. Still, the company’s bestselling point remains the sheer scale of its market, where 5.5 million people comprise the fifth-largest fan base on the continent, and a far better prospect than some existing NFL markets. In late October, the league borrowed US$2 billion to guarantee teams’ operations as credit became tighter, mindful no doubt that at least 10 of its franchises play or will play in stadiums financed by debt whose interest rates have as much as quadrupled in the last 11 months. Other markets, such as Jacksonville, Fla., are simply out of their depth in the NFL, where the average team payroll last year topped $114 million.

Before its deal with Toronto, Buffalo fell into this ignominious category. Hamstrung by the city’s minuscule corporate community and by western New York’s rust-belt economy, the Bills ranked 27th out of 32 in team revenues last season, with $206 million, despite selling out all eight of their regular-season home games. For nearly a decade, the team’s 90-year-old owner, Ralph Wilson Jr., has been warning that the city couldn’t support the outsized economics of the NFL. More ominously, his heirs have no interest in running the team when he dies. “I think the estate will sell it,” Wilson told the Buffalo News in 1999, in what would become a refrain.

No surprise, then, that many Buffalonians saw Rogers as an apocalyptic rider when it entered the picture last winter. “These people would do without Christmas presents if it meant they could keep going to Bills games,” says Ed Rutkowski, a former Bills quarterback who in the late ’90s helped lead ticket and sponsorship drives to keep the team in town. “They really love this team, so they were worried.” Today, Rutkowski counts among those who see the cross-border deal as a rescue whose $15 million a year may immunize the Bills from other, less friendly out-of-town buyers. So does Chris Collins, the top elected official in Erie County, where the Bills reside. He has suggested publicly that the team could play as much as half of its regular season schedule in Toronto.

That, of course, would raise the project to a whole new level in Canada, drawing much closer scrutiny of its pros and cons as a market. Lind acknowledges that the Rogers Centre would need a retrofit to add the 10,000 or 15,000 seats the league likes to see in its facilities, but he declined to go into detail about the options available. The most obvious solution would require that the Renaissance hotel overlooking the field be scaled down or dismantled, yet the company would need to consider whether potential changes would detract from the atmosphere for its other big-league sporting property, baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays.

Then there’s awkward matter of the CFL. While Rogers points to its long track record of supporting the Canadian league, an expanded NFL schedule in Toronto would almost certainly raise fears for its future. Those concerns have captured the sympathy of football insiders on both sides of the border. “I can’t imagine the NFL ever doing anything that would hurt the Canadian Football League,” says Marv Levy, the legendary former Bills coach who briefly coached the Montreal Alouettes. “The NFL has believed in and supported the CFL for a long time. I don’t think they’d want it to disappear.”

Still, it’s hard to ignore the growing sense the table is being set. “We are the only country and city in the world to have five NFL regular-season games in the same place over the next five years,” enthuses Adrian Montgomery, general manager of the Bills in Toronto project. This “unique and historic” arrangement, he adds, not only enhances the Rogers brand among sports fans, but was necessary for the Bills to continue in the market where they are best loved. All of which raises a question everyone involved should be glad they do not yet have to answer: if Toronto someday gets its own NFL team, what happens to the Bills?

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