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Sunday, February 3, 2008

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Buffalo Bills finalize deal to play one game a year in Toronto

Five-year pact is designed to increase revenues

By Mark Gaughan and Jerry Sullivan - News Sports Reporters
Updated: 01/31/08 9:21 AM

Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson said he told the other NFL owners, “I’m tired of standing on a street corner with a tin cup asking you guys to support us.”

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PHOENIX — The Buffalo Bills have finalized a deal to play one regular-season football game in Toronto over each of the next five seasons, league sources have told The Buffalo News.

The agreement also is scheduled to include three preseason games over the five-year span. The deal has been in the works for almost a year and first was made public in October. It will start with the 2008 NFL season and run through the 2012 season. It is likely to be formally announced in Toronto sometime in the next week.

The Bills believe the deal will help strengthen the viability of the franchise in Buffalo by expanding the team’s geographic market and increasing revenue at a time when there is great pressure on the NFL’s small-market teams to find new revenue sources.

Team owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr., reached Wednesday at his home in Detroit, said the league owners voted unanimously to approve the venture in a conference call about a week ago.

“When you can get the owners to be unanimous on anything, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “They all know what a difficult time we have keeping this franchise going in Buffalo, with the population dwindling and jobs disappearing. We’ve just about gone to the limit on regionalization. Moving to Toronto for a couple of games might help.”

The Bills will play seven regular- season games in Ralph Wilson Stadium instead of eight, reducing by one the number of games for which season-ticket holders will have to pay. It’s expected that the game that will shift to Toronto will be in December, perhaps the last home game of the year. Games in mid- to late December typically are harder for the Bills to sell out because of weather concerns. Moving a December game would be preferable for Toronto, as well, because it would be after the end of the Canadian Football League season.

Wilson said he didn’t make any stipulations about keeping certain games — the Miami game, for example — in Buffalo. “We’re going to leave that up to the league,” he said. In fact, Wilson said he told the NFL not to schedule “bottomdwellers” for opponents in Toronto.

The Toronto games would be played in the Rogers Centre — formerly the Sky- Dome — the domed stadium that is home to the baseball Blue Jays and the CFL’s Argonauts. The capacity for an NFL game was not announced.

The Bills needed approval from the other NFL teams to shift games to Toronto, and Wilson made a pitch to his league partners in October. The Bills also received the consent of the Empire State Development Corp., which owns partial control of the lease agreement the team has at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and from Erie County, another leaseholder.

“We are confident that regionalization will be in the best interest of our fans and the Western New York region for the viability of the franchise,” the Bills said in a statement in October.

The Bills have had great success marketing the team and selling luxury seats in the Rochester area. While the Bills attract a strong contingent of fans from Canada to home games — estimates are in the 10,000 range a game — they have not made strong inroads into the business community in the Toronto metropolitan area, which has a population of 5 million.

The Bills think that besides making money by playing one game a year in Toronto, they can spur more corporate support from Canadian businesses for some of the high-end seats in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

New stadiums are scheduled to open in the next several years for some big NFL markets — in Dallas and for both New York City-area teams. That will mean a big increase in revenue for those teams and thereby increase costs for all other teams, because it will increase the annual salary cap for each team. The Bills hope to lessen the effect of those increased costs with their new venture into Southern Ontario.

“When I was making the presentation to the owners, I said, ‘I’m tired of standing on a street corner with a tin cup asking you guys to support us,’ ” Wilson said.

Toronto fans would love to have an NFL franchise. It’s expected that wealthy Toronto interests would make bids for the Bills when the Buffalo franchise goes up for sale after Wilson dies. That’s likely to happen, regardless of whether the Bills market the team in Southern Ontario now.

Wilson, asked about the fears of Bills fans that this might be the first step in losing the team to Toronto, said, “They can think whatever they want. I can’t speculate the future.”

The Bills would essentially lease the games to Toronto organizers. It’s believed the Bills would not be responsible for selling tickets or game-day operation of the event; terms of the agreement have yet to be announced. It’s also not known what access Bills season-ticket holders would have for seats in Toronto.

mgaughan@buffnews.com and jsullivan@buffnews.com


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