Bills Toronto Series
The Bills Toronto Series is a deal consisting of a series of National Football League games featuring the Buffalo Bills played at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The series began in the 2008 season and expired in 2012, though the deal was later renewed for five years on January 29, 2013. The Bills were originally scheduled to play eight (later reduced to seven) home games over five seasons as part of the agreement, which included one regular-season game each of the 5 years and one pre-season game on the 1st, 3rd and (originally) 5th year of the series. This includes the first regular-season NFL game played in Canada which the Bills lost to the Miami Dolphins.
The league has approved one additional Toronto home game for the Bills each season through 2017, should the parties come to an agreement on an extension, and the terms of the current lease on Ralph Wilson Stadium (agreed upon in principle in December 2012) also allow for one regular season game throughout the terms of the contract for the purposes of extending the series. The series was conceived by a group that includes Bills owner Ralph Wilson, the late Ted Rogers of Rogers Communications and Larry Tanenbaum of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
Although NFL exhibition games have been played in Canada since 1950 (and even before that, the American Football League of 1926 played a regular-season game in Toronto), it was not until the Bills Toronto Series that a regular-season NFL game was played north of the border, on December 7, 2008. Regular season NFL games have been played outside the United States since 2005, with Fútbol Americano (a one-off regular season game in Mexico City) and the 2007 debut of the NFL International Series, which has promoted regular-season games in London. Both of those events were separate from the Toronto Series, in that the Toronto Series was orchestrated by an individual team while the other regular season games were orchestrated by the league.
Toronto is about 60 miles (97 km) by air from Buffalo and 86 miles (138 km) by car via the Queen Elizabeth Way. Much of southern Ontario is within the Bills' marketing territory as defined by the NFL. About 10,000 to 15,000 attendees (15-20% of the total) of Bills' home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium come from southern Ontario. However, a 2012 poll by Sun Media found that the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots were more popular than the Bills in Toronto.
Teams from the two cities often host games in the other. The Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League played a preseason game at Buffalo's Civic Stadium in 1951. A similar arrangement saw the Buffalo Braves play a total of 16 regular season games at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto from 1971-75, while the Toronto Raptors played a preseason game at Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo in 1996 and had a second game scheduled for 1998 that was cancelled due to the 1998–99 NBA lockout. The Raptors have discussed the possibility of playing additional preseason and regular season games in Buffalo, while the Toronto Blue Jays have considered playing an exhibition game in Buffalo, which is home to their Triple-A affiliate the Buffalo Bisons, having previously played the Cleveland Indians in an exhibition game at War Memorial Stadium in 1987.
Rogers Centre's capacity (54,000 seats) currently is slightly lower than the number of seats for a stadium to be a viable venue for a permanent Toronto team as all other NFL stadiums have at least 60,000 seats as of 2011. It is typically configured at 49,500 seats for Blue Jays baseball, though more were added for the 2008 Bills games for a total of 54,000.
Toronto Series games are the only NFL games not subject to the league's blackout restrictions. For instance, the 2010 Toronto Series preseason game had nearly 15,000 available seats but was still seen on television within the stadium's blackout zone. All of the Bills Toronto Series games have aired either at 4 p.m. or during Thursday Night Football; Rogers owns the Canadian television rights to NFL games aired in those time slots (whereas rival Bell Media owns the rights to all other NFL games).
In September 2006, Tanenbaum and Rogers held a news conference, where the two men discussed bringing an NFL franchise to Toronto. Neither specified whether a potential Toronto team would be a new franchise or a team moved from another city. Tanenbaum was quoted as saying, “I’m highly interested in an NFL team and Ted is, too. We hope to pursue it more rigorously as soon as the NFL gives us the word.”
In October 2007, Bills owner Ralph Wilson petitioned NFL owners to allow his team to play one “home” game per year (over five years) in Canada. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell approved the plan, which also allowed the Bills to also play a pre-season “home” game at Roger Centre every other year of the Series (2008, 2010, 2012) for a total of eight games in Toronto. In February 2008, Wilson avoided questions about a possible permanent move for the Bills to Toronto while discussing “high rates” for Series ticket prices. The deal Wilson struck with the Toronto group allows them to bid on and relocate other available NFL franchises up for sale.
Rogers Communications reported a Series payment of CA$78 million to the Buffalo Bills in their Q1 2008 financial report, which, according to Forbes, is more than the team earned (in operating income) in 2006. The series set the record for the largest gate revenue for a single event in the history of the Rogers Centre, at C$8 million, although this was later surpassed by UFC 129.
On May 22, 2012, the league gave their approval for a five year extension to the Bills Toronto Series through 2017 should the two sides reach an agreement. The deal, featuring one regular season game each year plus a pre-season game in 2015, was formally announced on January 29, 2013. Terms of the renewal agreement were not disclosed but it is believed to be significantly less than the CA$78 million of the original.
With the series entering its second phase, a perceived lack of interest amongst Toronto fans and the diminishing crowds attending games have been criticized. The first four years of the series were widely suspected to have included large ticket giveaways ("'papering' the stadium") in order to increase attendance. A large attendance drop from about 50,000 to 40,000 occurred in 2012 as the practice wound down, while attendance fell even further during the first year of the new deal in 2013. Attendance concerns have led to a scaling back of strategic objectives. At the time of renewal, the series was presented as a simple business deal offering lucrative NFL content to Rogers and increased revenue to the Bills with no hint of possible team relocation.
Reception in Buffalo
With the future of Bills continually in doubt, fan reaction in Buffalo to the Toronto series has ranged from "outright anger [to] begrudging acceptance" that the revenue provided helps the team. Many Buffalo fans refuse to attend games in Toronto. Specific fan objections to the Toronto games include the perception that city is a neutral site rather than a home game, the lack of energy in Rogers Centre, and poor turf.
Bills CEO Russ Brandon has noted one success: attendance by Canadian fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium had increased from 11% to 20% at the time of the renewal agreement. The Bills in Toronto has been widely held up as an effort at "regionalization" by the franchise.
The Bills played two games (one pre-season) in 2008 at Rogers Centre. The pre-season opponent was the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bills defeated the Steelers 24–21 on August 14, 2008. In the regular season, the Bills played (and lost to) the Miami Dolphins 16–3 on December 7 in front of 52,134 in attendance. The Rogers Centre’s roof was closed for the game, which meant the region's normally cold and windy December conditions wouldn’t influence the game. Ticket prices for the Series were announced in May, and averaged C$183 per seat. In Buffalo, Bills tickets averaged C$51 per seat. The Dolphins became the first team to play both an International Series and Toronto Series game from both games' inception.
The Bills lost to the New York Jets, 19–13, in front of 51,567 under the roof at Rogers Centre on December 3. There was no pre-season game at Rogers Centre in 2009. In 2009, the Bills Toronto Series also announced a ticket price reduction plan, cutting prices by an average of 17 percent and offering more than 11,000 tickets for less than C$99. Rogers Communications offered partial refunds to ticketholders who had purchased seats in 2008 and who were affected by the price reduction.
For the first time, the 2010 regular-season Toronto game took place during the 2010 CFL season and not after it; it was played on November 7, the last week of the CFL's regular season, with a 1:00 p.m. start (the Toronto Argonauts played the Montreal Alouettes in Montreal on the same day, but with a 4:00 p.m. start). The Bills faced the Chicago Bears, marking the first time a team from the NFC appeared in the series. As part of the NFL Television Contract the game was broadcast by Fox for the first time and not CBS. The Bills relinquished a five-point mid-fourth-quarter lead, falling 22–19 to the Bears.
The Bills played host to the Washington Redskins for the 2011 Toronto Series on Sunday, October 30, at 4:05 p.m. The Bills, in their first regular-season win in the series, defeated the Redskins 23–0, the first time Redskins coach Mike Shanahan had been shut out in his career. The game marked the peak of the Bills' fortunes that season, with the Bills reaching 5–2; a series of key injuries led to the team collapsing over the next several games to fall out of playoff contention for the twelfth straight year.
This season also marked the 20th anniversary of the Bills playing the Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI.
The pre-season game originally scheduled for the fifth year of the series was cancelled, as home games for the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts and a Bruce Springsteen concert conflicted with the NFL pre-season. The lone available weekend on the Rogers Centre schedule coincided with the Bills' home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (whom the Bills played in their 2008 preseason game); that game was moved to Ralph Wilson Stadium and designated the team's annual "Kids Day."
The Bills faced the Seattle Seahawks in their regular-season Toronto Series game on December 16, at 4:05 p.m. Eastern Time on Fox. In Canada this game was broadcast on Citytv. The Seahawks defeated the Bills 50–17. The half time performance was PSY who performed his hit "Gangnam Style".
The Bills hosted the Atlanta Falcons on December 1, 2013 at 4:05 p.m. They lost 34–31 in overtime. The lead see-sawed throughout the match, with the Bills holding on 31–24 late in the fourth quarter. A pass interference call against the Bills allowed Atlanta a touchdown from the one-yard line with 1:28 remaining. A fumble in overtime set up Matt Bryant's winning field goal for Atlanta. Half time entertainment was provided by the Beach Boys. Fewer than 40,000 fans attended the game, the smallest crowd of the series so far.
|August 14, 2008||Pittsburgh Steelers||21–24||Buffalo Bills||Rogers Centre||48,434|
|August 19, 2010||Indianapolis Colts||21–34||Buffalo Bills||Rogers Centre||39,583|
Regular season games
|December 7, 2008||Miami Dolphins||16–3||Buffalo Bills||Rogers Centre||52,134|
|December 3, 2009||New York Jets||19–13||Buffalo Bills||Rogers Centre||51,567|
|November 7, 2010||Chicago Bears||22–19||Buffalo Bills||Rogers Centre||50,746|
|October 30, 2011||Washington Redskins||0–23||Buffalo Bills||Rogers Centre||51,579|
|December 16, 2012||Seattle Seahawks||50–17||Buffalo Bills||Rogers Centre||40,770|
|December 1, 2013||Atlanta Falcons||34–31 (OT)||Buffalo Bills||Rogers Centre||38,969|
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