The Buffalo Bills will continue to call Rogers Centre their home away from home for the next five years.
The team and Canadian media giant Rogers Communications officially announced on Tuesday a five-year extension to their agreement, which calls for the Bills to play one regular-season game per year in the old SkyDome starting in 2013.
“This is a hallmark opportunity for our franchise to continue this operation that we started five years ago,” Bills President Russ Brandon said in an afternoon news conference at Rogers Centre. “The one thing that we did learn that was paramount was the appetite for the NFL in southern Ontario.”
Off the field, the Bills’ first agreement with Rogers was a success. The team was paid $78 million to hold seven games up north, five in the regular season and two preseason contests (another preseason game in 2012 was shifted back to Orchard Park because of scheduling conflicts).
The impact has also been seen at Ralph Wilson Stadium, according to Brandon. Five years ago, the Bills drew about 11 percent of their season-ticket holders from the greater Toronto area. That number is now more than 20 percent, Brandon said.
Neither side divulged Tuesday how much the Bills will be paid for this extension, which includes only one preseason game, in 2015.
Where the series has fallen short, of course, is on the field. The Bills are just 1-4 in their regular-season games, including an embarrassing 50-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in December.
“Our commitment is that we have to bring a winning product to the field. That’s where we have fallen down in this series,” Brandon said. “We talk about the atmosphere of last year, and it was not exactly conducive to what we want to build upon. But the reason for that was we didn’t play good football, plain and simple.”
Despite the on-field struggles, both sides said Tuesday the extension – which has been in the works for more than a year – was never close to falling apart.
“Negotiations always are easier when you both want to end at the same result,” Rogers President Keith Pelley said. “We both wanted to continue this relationship, but we knew we needed to make some changes.”
One of those was to hire a full-time executive director for the series in Greg Albrecht. He, along with Mary Owen, the Bills’ executive vice president of strategic planning, were the key figures in negotiations for the extension.
Another change was a reduction in ticket prices, which when the series was established in the 2008 season were severely criticized for being too high. Last year, about 60 percent of the seats were available for less than $100.
Ticket prices will remain the same in 2013, Pelley said.
Rogers also ended its policy of giving away complimentary tickets – a practice Pelley admitted was commonplace in the first four years of the agreement – and announced the actual attendance of December’s game at 40,770.
Pelley said he was “amazed” at that number considering the Bills’ playoff chances were all but extinguished, and pointed to it as evidence of the “overwhelming appetite for the National Football League” in the Toronto area. Brandon again reiterated why the Bills need to tap into that market.
“It’s very important to our organization moving forward in today’s NFL that we regionalize our brand,” he said. “Over 10 years ago we went east, moved our training camp to Rochester, and we’ve reaped the benefits of that. And this agreement is no different. ... We’re like many other businesses in Buffalo, especially in the entertainment industry, in the tourism industry, that southern Ontario and Toronto are very important to their business. We are no different.”
Brandon said the team is not trying to replicate the Ralph Wilson Stadium experience in Toronto.
“We have 55 years of tradition in Buffalo and in Orchard Park. We have five years of tradition here,” he said. “We need a better on-field performance to turn people who are fans of the NFL, not particularly Bills fans, into Bills fans.”
It’s not just the fans the Bills have to win over, though. Support among players in the locker room is tepid at best. Center Eric Wood called the series “a joke” after the loss in December and said he hoped it wouldn’t be renewed.
“We understand that emotions run high after games,” Brandon said. “Our focus as an organization is to provide our fans and our players the best experiences possible. From that standpoint, I understand his frustration. I respect it.”
The 10-year lease agreement announced last month between the Bills and Erie County allows the team to play one regular-season game per season in Toronto, as well as one other international game over its term.