The Buffalo Bills have stopped playing their annual regular season game in Canada, representing a rare mis-step for the National Football League (NFL). Barry Wilner explains why.
Not everything turns golden in the NFL.
The New York-based Bills have tried to enhance their appeal, and coffers, by playing one pre-season game and one regular-season match in Toronto, less than a two-hour drive from Buffalo.
The current agreement has been suspended with four years remaining and instead the Bills will play all eight home games at Orchard Park in Buffalo, New York, in 2014.
The rationale for the agreement was solid enough. Western New York is an economically stressed area, the Bills have an aging stadium, and the team recognised the need to branch out for new revenue streams and fan support. The natural reaction was to venture into nearby Canada, with Ontario cities Toronto and Hamilton the main focus.
But it didn’t work. The folks in Toronto weren’t enamoured with the product the Bills provided, which is to say, at best mediocre American football. The Bills won only once in their past six regular seasons in Toronto, without any of the games being particularly compelling until last year’s 34-31 overtime defeat against Atlanta. However for that game, the Falcons seemed to have as much support in the stands as the Bills.
The high ticket prices – an average of $180 – charged by Rogers Communications, which promoted the Toronto games, also made the NFL north of the border even less of an attraction.
The Canadian connection struck in 2008 originally seemed a smart approach to making the Bills more competitive financially. The theory was it would increase their footprint in the Canadian marketplace, particularly in merchandising. As part of that five-year deal, Rogers agreed to pay $78 million for five regular-season and three pre-season games in Toronto.
The Bills initially did profit, earning about double at Rogers Centre what they usually generated for games in Ralph Wilson Stadium. Competitively, they suffered, though, as both players and fans complained about the neutral-site feel of games in Toronto.
Oddly, Bills president Russ Brandon said the team did see an increase of about 18 per cent in the number of Canadians who were attending the home games in Orchard Park. So maybe the Canadian connection worked in reverse.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, one of the main instigators in the highly successful International Series in London that will feature three games at Wembley Stadium this season, doesn’t want to abandon the Canadian audience. Goodell was born in western New York and has championed keeping the Bills in Buffalo, one of the league’s smallest markets.
“We know we have to find a long-term solution to keep the Bills there and that’s what we will work to do,’’ he said in late March after the Bills’ founder and only owner, Ralph Wilson Jr., passed away at age 95.
Rogers are also hopeful for a resumption of the regular season game in 2015.
“We’re going to look at every aspect, so that if we do come back we have a more robust fan experience and try to create more of a home-field advantage,” adds Brandon. “Right now, that was not the situation. And that was one of the reasons we wanted to get into a lot of detail with our partners up there and see if that’s viable moving forward.
“Regionalisation is a key lever for us moving forward, and the Toronto marketplace and southern Ontario are a key element to that.”