The Buffalo Bills’ cancellation Wednesday of their game in Toronto this fall was an admission of failure in their bid to create a home away from home in Canada and a move to reclaim home-field advantage for all of their home games in 2014.
The tipping point in the six-year experiment known as “The Bills in Toronto Series” came last Dec. 1, when the Bills lost in overtime to the Atlanta Falcons before an announced crowd of 38,969. The crowd was at least 12,000 short of a sellout, the atmosphere in the Rogers Centre was dreary, and there were at least as many fans rooting for the Falcons as for the Bills.
After six years, not only weren’t the Bills building on their fan base in Toronto, they were watching it grow more apathetic.
Russ Brandon, Bills president and chief executive officer, acknowledged that the atmosphere for the Falcons game prompted the team to re-evaluate the partnership.
“I think that’s a fair comment,” Brandon said. “We’re trying to build a fan base north of the border, and this year I would say it was a neutral crowd. And some of that had to do with how we’ve played over the last six years has really not been conducive to building a lot of fans.”
“Obviously this past year was disappointing with that neutral crowd that we had there, to say the least,” Brandon said.
Brandon would not speak directly to the chances of the series resuming in 2015. There still are four years remaining on the five-year deal between the Bills and their Toronto business partner, Rogers Media Inc. The joint statement released by the Bills and Rogers labeled Wednesday’s deal a postponement.
However, it would be a surprise if the Bills go back to Toronto for a regular-season game. Veteran Bills players voiced their displeasure with the game to team officials late last season. The Bills’ coaches don’t like it.
Furthermore, the game no longer is a financial windfall for the team, as it was in the first five years of the agreement. Rogers paid the Bills almost double what they would gross for games in Orchard Park. The original deal averaged about $9.8 million a game for the Bills. The extension doesn’t pay the Bills much more per game than they would gross at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Rogers likes having a relationship with the Bills and has forged a way to continue it without going to the trouble of staging expensive games in downtown Toronto that largely have been a public-relations disaster.
The Bills announced Wednesday they had struck a separate sponsorship agreement with Rogers for the 2014 season in Orchard Park. It will give Rogers ticketing, marketing and media exposure opportunities with the team. The Bills also will create a Rogers-sponsored “Canada House” at The Ralph, which will be a hospitality facility for Canadian fans. It will be modeled after a venture the NFL uses at the Super Bowl for corporate sponsors and business partners.
Brandon said roughly 18 percent of fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium are from Southern Ontario. He said about 16 percent of fans at Orchard Park games are from the Rochester area.
“Obviously regionalization has worked for us, and it will continue to be an important variable of our business planning moving forward,” Brandon said.
The news of the cancellation of the Toronto game was met with widespread pleasure among Bills fans. Hundreds of fans expressed their approval on The News’ website and social media accounts.
“I’ve been a season-ticket holder since 1970, and I’m a big believer in home-field advantage and the affect of the crowd on the opponent,” said James J. Sabo, president of the Monday Quarterback Club, a business group that has supported the Bills since 1960. “The members of the quarterback club, being die-hard Bills fans, I’d expect will view it as a very positive development.
“I think it gives the team an advantage,” Sabo said. “You look at last year’s game against Atlanta, and the Bills got a 14-0 lead. If that game was at The Ralph, in the cold, with a Southern team coming up here, they were not coming back to win, like they did in Toronto.”
Bills fans now will have to buy tickets for eight home games for the first time since 2007.
It will be a “stress-test,” in a sense, for the Bills’ supporters. The Bills drew only 54,305 for their lone December game in Orchard Park last season and several other games came close to not selling out.
Does Brandon think he can sell out the 2014 season?
“That will be what we will see,” he said. “Obviously last year we had to really work for our sellouts, understandably so. That’s something that we’re willing to take on, that challenge. We have very passionate fans and tremendous fans, but we have to really work to sell tickets here as we’ve discussed in the past.”
Of course, success on the field would help ticket sales. The Bills have missed the playoffs 14 straight years, the longest streak in the league.