Bills’ Toronto venture fails to rouse passions of Canadian fans
After two games, series looks better in long run
It all started out so promising last spring — with the Toronto organizers boasting that they fielded more than 180,000 requests for tickets to the eight-game Bills in Toronto series.
Two of the eight games have been played, and the series looks like a mixed success — at best.
The Bills have extended their fan base and corporate brand into the Toronto area and have started getting their money — $78 million for the series, or $9.75 million per game.
But virtually every sports columnist in Metro Toronto has blasted the high ticket prices, which averaged more than $200. Those tickets have proved to be a tough sell. Also, Bills fans and players complained that the atmosphere inside the Rogers Centre was flat and that the home-field advantage got buried under the dome’s closed roof.
And then there was Sunday’s game, a listless 16-3 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
Despite that loss, the National Football League’s first regular-season foray north of the border seemed to work better for the Bills than it did for Toronto.
“This is a long-term fan-development project, and it is a cornerstone of our regionalization plan,” Bills Chief Operating Officer Russ Brandon said Wednesday. “Overall, we were extremely pleased with the first-ever NFL regular-season game played in Canada.”
The Bills in Toronto experiment has four years left to run, and Rogers Communications officials are hinting strongly that two changes could be coming:
• Organizers acknowledge they may have to look at reducing ticket prices, currently more than four times the level at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
• At least some of the remaining four regular-season games could be played earlier in the season, perhaps in conjunction with a Toronto Argonauts game on the same weekend.
Exorbitant ticket prices remain the lightning rod for criticism of the international series.
Sunday’s game drew 52,134 fans, about 1,000 fans shy of capacity, Rogers officials say.
But getting that close to a sellout depended on a late advertising push by the Rogers group, along with what the media have described as heavy pressure put on Rogers’ corporate friends to buy remaining tickets.
Rogers officials have said the average ticket price was $183, not including seats between the 20-yard lines in the lower bowl. That hikes the average to about $220, or more than four times the average ticket price in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Adrian Montgomery, director of football operations for Rogers Communications, strongly hinted that organizers will take another look at the ticket prices.
“I will acknowledge that in these strange [economic] times, we have to look at everything to make the event better,” he said.
The game proved that there’s a strong appetite for a premium event in Toronto, he said.
“Having said that, we want to continue to make this experience the best possible experience for the fans,” Montgomery added. “So we’re looking at everything.”
The late date of the game also has become an issue.
Many Buffalo fans complained that the Bills lost their home-field advantage with an indoor December game against a key division rival from a warm climate, the Miami Dolphins.
Montgomery said that organizers promised the Argonauts that the first regular-season game wouldn’t be played until after the Canadian Football League season.
“But there’s no commitment beyond that,” Montgomery said.
Next year’s game could be scheduled during the CFL season, either when the Argonauts are out of town, or even in conjunction with an Argos game, perhaps with both teams playing on the same weekend.
“I think a football weekend celebrating both the CFL and the NFL would be a great concept,” Montgomery said. “That’s something we’d love to talk about. But our first conversation would be with the Argonauts.”
Through no fault of the Toronto organizers, the game wasn’t much of an artistic success, with fans and media alike complaining about an offense-challenged field goal fest that didn’t do much to feed Toronto’s appetite for NFL football.
And, in a sad coincidence, the man most instrumental in bringing the games to Toronto, media magnate Ted Rogers, died five days before the kickoff.
Still, Rogers officials — while mourning the death of their boss this week — are proclaiming the first regular-season NFL game in Toronto a success.
Despite all the criticism, Montgomery cited plenty of positives from the game, including the almost-full stadium, the selling of 98 percent of the VIP seats and the crowd of about 10,000 at a pregame tailgate party outside the Rogers Centre.
“I think it was tremendous,” Montgomery said. “It was a great day. It was an event in the City of Toronto that people are going to remember for a long time.”
The only drawback, Montgomery said, was that the Bills lost.
Others, especially Bills fans paying big bucks to attend the Toronto game, weren’t so thrilled by the experience.
“I’d rather go to Orchard Park,” said Dick Zolnowski, treasurer of the Bills Booster Club. “There’s no home crowd there [in Toronto]. You couldn’t tell which was the home team. I’d be generous in calling it 50-50. There might have been more Dolphins fans there.”
Zolnowski paid $300 for his seat, a heavy price to witness an offensively challenged Bills team.
“They played the ‘Shout’ song, and very few people sang it,” he said. “It was a very passive game. You could never tell we were the home team.”
Rogers officials concede that point, realizing they have a big challenge turning the fans into a huge pro-Bills crowd.
“I think that’s part and parcel of the learning experience,” Montgomery said. “Toronto is very much an NFL town. It’s not solidly yet a Buffalo Bills town. We’re going to need some time to move these people squarely into the Bills camp.”