National Football League in Toronto
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The National Football League (NFL) has a long history in Canada's most-populous city, Toronto, Ontario. The city has played host to the third most NFL games among cities outside the United States after London and Tokyo, excluding NFL-Canadian Football League (CFL) interleague games, and is one of only three cities (the others being London and Mexico City) to have hosted regular season games. The NFL has long been rumoured to be considering placing one of its franchises in Toronto, which is the fourth most populous city in North America, and the third-largest market in English-speaking North America. While the CFL has professional Canadian football teams in Toronto (the Argonauts) and nearby Hamilton (the Tiger-Cats), there are no professional American football teams in Canada, NFL or otherwise. Despite being in Canada, Toronto is physically farther south than existing NFL franchises in Minnesota, Seattle and Green Bay, and has teams in each of the other major professional sports leagues: the Maple Leafs in the National Hockey League, the Blue Jays in Major League Baseball, the Raptors in the National Basketball Association and the Toronto FC in the Major League Soccer. San Diego Chargers executive Dean Spanos was quoted in January 2008 as saying that "the long term goal is globalizing our sport" and that "it is possible that within five or 10 years, the league will have franchises outside the United States."
The first professional U.S. football team to play a home game in Toronto was the Los Angeles Wildcats, a traveling team in the American Football League of 1926; the original AFL was the first major competitor to the National Football League for the dominance of professional football. Because the Wildcats nominally represented Los Angeles, California, a city to which frequent travel still posed a major obstacle, the Wildcats were instead based in Illinois and played most of its games in the home stadiums of its opponents, with the exception of a February 1927 West Coast road trip and a single game in Toronto. The Toronto game (which the Wildcats lost to the New York Football Yankees, 29–0) was relatively popular; at the time, Canadian football still more closely resembled rugby football and had not yet adopted the forward pass. Three years after the game, Canadian football allowed the forward pass.
The NFL has had a presence in Toronto since 1959, when the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League played three NFL teams in a three-season span. The first ever appearance of an NFL team in Toronto was in August of that year during the Chicago Cardinals–Toronto Argonauts exhibition game; it broke the record for exhibition attendance in Canada at 27,770. These exhibition gamess, which had been first tried in Ottawa in 1950 and were later staged in Montreal, were typically played by CFL rules in the first half and NFL rules in the second. The Argos lost all three games. The nearby Hamilton Tiger-Cats also hosted a game against the Bills, then an American Football League team. Buffalo lost the game 38–21, the only time an NFL or AFL team would lose to a CFL team. Several decades later, the American Bowl series brought three preseason games to Toronto from 1993 to 1997. Teams from other American football leagues have made their home in Toronto over the years, including the Continental Football League's Toronto Rifles (1965–67) and the Arena Football League's Toronto Phantoms (2000–02, owned by Rogers)
During John Bassett's ownership of the Argonauts from late-50s to early-70s, he entertained various machinations for bringing American football to Toronto, including moving the Argos to the NFL or bringing an American expansion team to the city (e.g. the Toronto Northmen of the World Football League). Other team owners were steadfastly against Bassett's moves and almost rescinded his franchise in 1974; angered, he sold the team for $3.3 million to hotel magnate William R. Hodgson in the same year.
Former Toronto Blue Jays CEO and President Paul Godfrey has been pursuing an NFL franchise for Toronto since 1988. In 1994, Labatt Brewing Company, then owner of the Blue Jays and Argonauts, considered purchasing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and relocating them to Toronto's SkyDome, with Richard Peddie, who was President of Labatt's sports division, saying that he hoped to acquire a team for the city. Toronto was one of five finalist cities who had groups bidding to purchase the franchise. Toronto was one of several cities that Art Modell considered relocating the Cleveland Browns to in 1995 prior to choosing Baltimore. When the NFL decided to expand to 32 teams in 1998, Toronto was one of three finalists (along with Houston and Los Angeles) which submitted a bid for a team. Godfrey has stated that in 2005 the NFL gave him and Tanenbaum permission to discuss the sale of the New Orleans Saints with team owner Tom Benson. However, after Hurricane Katrina Godfrey stated that "The Saints became a symbol for that community. Whatever deal there might have been disappeared." In 2006 it was reported that Benson had rejected an offer of $1 billion.from a group from Canada.
In 2005, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue stated that Toronto would be considered for expansion, though a year later he said that "I don't see any expansion on the horizon". However, he left the door open to including Toronto in the NFL International Series.
In 2008, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) considered bringing a NFL team to Toronto and building them a new stadium, but abandoned the idea when they concluded that the project would not generate sufficient financial return to justify the significant cost of the project.
Prior to his death in December 2008, Ted Rogers, owner of Rogers Communications and the man responsible for leasing the Bills from Ralph Wilson for the Toronto Series, was considered a leading contender for landing a Toronto NFL franchise. Corporate ownership is forbidden under the NFL's ownership policy, so his company would not be able to buy the team. Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum met in 2008 and discussed the possibility of an NFL franchise in Toronto. Tannenbaum said that he and Rogers were "highly interested" in bringing an NFL franchise to Toronto and that he was going to "pursue it more rigorously" as soon as the NFL gave him the word.
In 2011, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford stated that he supported an NFL team in Toronto, but he ruled out public financing for a new stadium. He and his brother Doug Ford, a member of the Toronto City Council, planned on presenting a proposal to league owners regarding relocation of either the Jaguars or the Saints to Toronto, with the intention of building a new stadium.
In July 2013, Tim Leiweke, the new President of MLSE, which owns the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC, stated of the organization's involvement in attracting an NFL team for Toronto, "it is a safe bet to say we’ll have some role there, to be determined, but that’s on our radar screen", and that "we’d go out of our way to make it work here." NFL rules prohibit corporations, such as MLSE, from having an ownership stake in a team. Leiweke later stated "We can’t own a team (per NFL rules), but we do have more expertise on how to build (stadiums) than anyone ... MLSE can play a role. We’re not the lead here. Our job is to augment whatever group may come together." It has been reported that MLSE is interested in building and managing the proposed NFL stadium, with MLSE minority owner Larry Tanenbaum and Edward Rogers III, son of Ted Rogers, part of the group which would own the team. Jon Bon Jovi, a rock musician who previously owned the Arena Football League's Philadelphia Soul and has numerous ties to both Lieweke and other NFL owners, has expressed interest in buying an NFL franchise and has been speculated as a potential partner for Lieweke's efforts. MLSE reportedly has already begun designing the stadium. The potential acquisition of the Argos by MLSE is thought to enhance the likelihood of Toronto receiving an NFL franchise, with former President of MLSE Richard Peddie saying "everything I'm hearing is that that the NFL is telling them that if you want an NFL team, you better make sure the Argos are okay." Leiweke has said that moving into a renovated BMO Field "will help turn [the Argos] around" and that "there's no way the NFL comes here without the CFL being unbelievably successful first.”
For decades, the Bills have had a large fan base in southern Ontario. The team averages 15,000 Canadian fans a game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and has a Canadian sales office and radio affiliate in Toronto: CJCL. The NFL's television rules in Canada have been applied in a similar manner to secondary markets in the U.S., so that nearly all Bills games are televised in Toronto (on CFTO and CITY). Toronto is within a 75-mile (120 km) radius of Ralph Wilson Stadium, and is thus subject to the league's blackout policy for home games that do not sell out.
As early as 1994 the Bills considered hosting some of their regular season home games in Toronto. The team hosted two pre-season American Bowls in Toronto the late 1990s. On October 18, 2007, they announced that they were seeking NFL approval to play a pre-season and at least one regular season home game in Toronto in an attempt to regionalize the franchise and capitalize on the southern Ontario market. Moving games from Ralph Wilson Stadium required the approval of Erie County and the Empire State Development Corporation. On January 30, 2008, it was announced that the Rogers Communications had reached an agreement with the Bills to host five annual regular-season and three exhibition NFL games over five seasons in Toronto's Rogers Centre, beginning in 2008. Rogers Communications, owner of the Rogers Centre, paid C$78 million for the games, and hired a general manager and management staff to handle the games. On April 3 it was announced that the Bills would play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the pre-season game, and a couple of weeks later it was revealed that they would host their division rivals, the Miami Dolphins, on December 7.
Both games had ticket prices ranging from C$55 to C$295 and VIP tickets from C$325 to C$575. The average ticket price of C$183 was significantly above the highest in the NFL (after converting to U.S. dollars), and nearly four times the Bills' ticket prices, which were the lowest in the league. The first of these games took place in the 2008 NFL season. The preseason game against the Steelers was scheduled one day before the Toronto Argonauts played in the same stadium. Buffalo won the game, 24–21, but there were reports that organizers had to give away over 10,000 tickets to ensure a sellout crowd, a suggestion denied by Ted Rogers. The regular season game against Miami was played after the completion of the 2008 CFL season. The Bills, led by backup quarterback J. P. Losman, lost 16–3, eliminating them from playoff contention for the ninth straight year. Reportedly, about half of the crowd was Dolphins fans.
In March 2009 Rogers announced that it was considering renegotiating the agreement to add a second annual regular-season Bills game beginning in 2010, though this never came to fruition. Ticket prices for the 2009 game were lowered an average of 17%. The game, against the New York Jets, was a featured on the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football package. Again, the Bills lost 19-13. The following year, the Bills lost to the Chicago Bears, 22-19.
NFL officials were considering expanding the season to 18 games in 2011, with the possibility of incorporating additional international play. Rogers again expressed an interest in expanding the series by an additional game per season, especially if the schedule was lengthened. However, the schedule was ultimately not changed in the negotiated collective bargaining agreement. The Bills organization opposed playing more than one regular season game each year in Toronto. In the 2011 Bills "State of the Team" address, team CEO Russ Brandon said that the series had been a major success and had increased the Toronto share of ticket sales by 44% relative to prior to the series. Later that year the Bills won their first game in Toronto, defeating the Washington Redskins, 23-0.
The Bills' lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium was set to expire following the 2012 season, which would have left the team free to move. In January 2012 the league requested renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium costing approximately $130 million as a condition of renewing the lease. The Bills later indicated that the necessary renovations would be over $200 million. The Bills agreed to a short-term lease extension on Ralph Wilson Stadium in late 2012, pending municipal approval, and in March 2013 a 10-year, $130 million lease was approved by the NFL. Although the deal has punitive penalties for terminating the lease early, it allows for a smaller buyout after seven years. The lease also indicates that the Bills' future in the stadium is unlikely beyond the end of the lease and that if the Bills are to stay in Buffalo, a newer, more modern stadium (the prospects of which will be studied as part of the lease agreement) would need to be constructed.
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. In the final game of the original deal, the Bills lost to the Seattle Seahawks 50-17.
On March 5, 2014 the Bills and Rogers released a joint statement which announced that they had "postponed for one year the scheduled 2014 regular season game at Rogers Centre" and that they would "use this time to collectively evaluate opportunities and build on the foundation to enhance future games." Keith Pelley, President of Rogers Communication, said that "there’s no hiding the fact the series did not get off to a rosy start" and that "it's tough midway through to change that perception, hence the reason why we thought it would be a best to take a year off then re-launch it once we’ve thought that through." Bills CEO Russ Brandon described Toronto as a "challenged market" for the team and stated that the series "has not translated into enough wins for us there". However, Brandon also emphasized the financial benefits of the series by saying that it has "taken a game out of the [Buffalo] market that has essentially taken 70,000 seats out of our market, and we've truly only sold out two of our home games". He went on to say "we've manufactured sellouts in the other four or five. We're trying to find ways to obviously keep this team viable and we've done a very good job, and this [Toronto] series has obviously contributed to that". Brandon has also said that the additional game would "stress-test the Buffalo market". Brandon revealed that "Southern Ontario and the Toronto market and the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) are now the top secondary market of the Buffalo Bills".
Potential candidates for relocation
The NFL's dealings with Toronto have led to speculation that the NFL may be considering moving the Bills or another team to Toronto permanently. The Bills are the most frequently suggested team for such a move, due to their connections with Ontario. In addition, the Bills play in one of the league's smallest markets; they have no waiting list for season tickets, and games are often blacked out due to not being sold out. The difficulties selling tickets for Bills games, particularly late in the season when western New York's weather becomes much poorer, was part of the reason why capacity was decreased by 7,000 in the 1998 renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium. Western New York's economic problems have forced the Bills to keep their average ticket prices among the lowest in the NFL, and the team refused to take advantage of the loosening of blackout restrictions in 2012.
Owner Ralph Wilson has said that he will never move the team. However, he turned 95 in 2013 (the oldest owner in the history of the NFL), is in declining health, and has no apparent successor. His family intends to sell the team after his death. There is speculation that Toronto interests would bid for the franchise in hopes of moving them to Toronto. The team's home, Ralph Wilson Stadium, is 40 years old and the Bills are in discussions with various levels of government to construct a replacement. The team's lease, which runs through the 2022 season, stipulates a $400 million penalty for breaking the lease early, with a one-time $28.4 million option to buy out the final three years after year seven (in 2020). There are doubts that the Buffalo region can afford the $800+ million cost of a new stadium.
The Jaguars play in one of the NFL's smallest markets and have had trouble selling out EverBank Field. In the 2009 season all but one of their home games was blacked out. The Jaguars were sold to automobile parts tycoon Shahid Khan in 2011, who made a verbal commitment to keep the team in Jacksonville. The Jaguars are locked into a stadium lease through 2027 and host an annual home game in London as part of the NFL International Series beginning in 2013.
The Vikings were considered a candidate due to their lease for the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome expiring in 2011. The team is one of the few NFL franchises losing money. However, after the Minnesota Legislature approved a stadium-financing deal for a new stadium at the current Metrodome site in May 2012 the Vikings were effectively eliminated from the pool of potential relocating teams.
The fate of the Saints was uncertain after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and severely damaged the Louisiana Superdome in 2005. However, the Saints and Louisiana struck a deal to repair and renovate the Superdome, securing the Saints ties to New Orleans.
Bringing an NFL team to Toronto would be quite expensive, with teams worth US$1 billion. Additionally, an NFL team in Toronto would have to pay its players in U.S. dollars while collecting a significant fraction of its revenues in Canadian dollars—the same anomaly that faces other Canadian teams.
Another major issue is the stadium. Although Paul Godfrey believed that the Rogers Centre could be home to an NFL franchise, it is unclear if it would be suitable long-term. The Rogers Centre, a retractable roof stadium, has a capacity of 54,088 when configured for CFL games, which is larger than the NFL's 50,000-seat minimum. However, it would be the smallest capacity stadium in the league (excluding the exhibition-only stadiums in Canton and Honolulu), with the next smallest Chicago's Soldier Field, which seats 61,500. While extra seats could be added as a result of the shorter NFL field (an NFL exhibition at the SkyDome in 1995 was attended by almost 55,800 fans), a large-scale expansion would require lowering the playing surface. As a result, a new football stadium would likely need to be built. Then-mayor David Miller, stated that funding for a new stadium would not come from the City of Toronto.
Another obstacle to Toronto acquiring an NFL teams is the league's determination to return a team to Los Angeles, which NFL official Eric Grubman calls "one of our top goals". This objective will likely take precedence over moving a team to Toronto.
Relocation of a team to Toronto would face resistance from the Bills, since such a large portion of their fans come from Canada. Toronto falls within the NFL's definition of the Bills' home territory. According to Godfrey, Wilson has stated that "he wouldn't allow a team in Toronto", but then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's position was that "there are no such things as territorial rights in the NFL."
Any NFL team that entered the Toronto market would have to deal with the Canadian Football League (CFL)'s Toronto Argonauts, as well as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who play in nearby Hamilton, Ontario, both of which -- as well as the CFL -- have objected to a NFL team in Canada. The NFL has been reluctant to hurt the CFL. The World Football League (WFL) intended to place a franchise in Toronto known as the Toronto Northmen, but after the Canadian Parliament began debating the Canadian Football Act, which would have banned foreign football leagues from playing in Canada in an attempt to protect the CFL, the WFL moved the team to Memphis, Tennessee. Similar bills have been introduced to Parliament since the Bills Toronto Series was announced.
CFL interleague games in southern Ontario
|August 5, 1959||Chicago Cardinals||55–26||Toronto Argonauts||Exhibition Stadium||27,770|
|August 3, 1960||Pittsburgh Steelers||43–16||Toronto Argonauts||Exhibition Stadium||23,570|
|August 2, 1961||St. Louis Cardinals||36–7||Toronto Argonauts||Exhibition Stadium||24,376|
|August 8, 1961||Buffalo Bills||21–38||Hamilton Tiger-Cats||Civic Stadium||12,000|
|August 15, 1960||Chicago Bears||16–7||New York Giants||Varsity Stadium||5,401|
|August 14, 1993||New England Patriots||9–12||Cleveland Browns||SkyDome||33,021|
|August 12, 1995||Dallas Cowboys||7–9||Buffalo Bills||SkyDome||55,799|
|August 16, 1997||Green Bay Packers||35–3||Buffalo Bills||SkyDome||53,896|
|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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