It’s tough to read the tea leaves these days. I don’t know if Jerry Jones was talking off the top of his head last week, or testing the waters. My sense is the flamboyant Dallas Cowboys owner is legitimately wondering – along with other NFL owners – whether Buffalo fans would remain loyal if the next owner took the team to Toronto.
I can understand why he’d ask. Toronto is a two-hour drive up the QEW. Unlike Los Angeles or other NFL-covetous cities, it’s in our extended backyard. Big-time sports teams commonly have regional fan bases. The Bills’ pull extends from Southern Ontario into Central New York. It’s not unthinkable that Buffalo fans would still back the Bills in Toronto.
It’s an intriguing question. So intriguing, in fact, that I asked it six years ago.
It was the start of the infamous annual Bills-in-Toronto game. The currently discontinued series heightened fears of an eventual Bills move to the cross-border metropolis. I wrote a column asking whether fan loyalty would survive if the team were relocated within a two-hour drive; whether folks would feel like the team was still “ours.” Multiple-choice options ranged from a) Still root for them as if they were here, to d) Be so angry I’d burn my Bills cap, T-shirt and team jersey.
More than 300 email responses (this was the pre-Twitter era) poured in. The overwhelming sentiment: If they go, we’re done with them.
More than half the emailers were repulsed by the notion of the “Toronto Bills.” Add the chunk who said they’d lose interest over time, and nearly three of every four respondees said a move to Toronto means goodbye. Only one in every 10 said they would transfer their full love and loyalty across the border.
Granted, it wasn’t a scientific survey. But results that overwhelming can’t be easily dismissed.
One response, from J.F., summed up prevailing sentiment: “I would take a sledgehammer to my Bills’ mailbox and forget about the NFL. The thought of the Bills in Toronto is nausea on steroids, it is Wide Right to the 10th power, it is No Goal to infinity. It would be like watching your neighbor back out of his driveway every day in the car he stole from you. It is just too much to bear.
Hear that, Jerry?
If he and other NFL owners think that OK’ing a Bills move to our Canadian neighbor wouldn’t be much different for Buffalonians than having the team here, they can think again. Despite its proximity, Toronto wouldn’t soften the blow, ease the pain or keep alive – at least for most fans – the Bills connection.
If further confirmation is needed, look what subsequently happened with the disastrous Bills-in-Toronto series. More Buffalo fans may have flown to Miami for the annual game against the despised Dolphins than made the drive up the QEW. Bills fans never trekked en masse across the border, never packed the Rogers Centre, never transported the home-field advantage to Toronto. Why? I think they resented the yearly sacrifice of a home game on the altar of corporate dollars and extending the NFL’s reach into Canada.
It didn’t help that there is no tailgating in T.O., and the atmosphere inside the Rogers Centre is closer to a Philharmonic concert than a football game. But the main reason the loyalty didn’t travel north, from everything I’ve heard, was fans’ resentment at having a home game bought out from under them.
If the team itself is bought and moved, instead of just an annual game, I suspect the anger would compound exponentially.
Bills to Toronto? Don’t expect most fans here to follow.