By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – The Buffalo Bills made their annual trip to Toronto on Sunday but despite appearances by the Beach Boys and Toronto’s infamous crack-smoking mayor, the NFL again failed to generate any buzz north of the border.
A 34-31 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons added another line to a dismal record for the Bills at their home away from home.
The yearly pilgrimage north has failed to live up to the hype in Toronto where the Bills are a miserable 1-5 in their domed home, their lone victory coming against the Washington Redskins in 2011.
But for a small market franchise desperately trying to expand its fan base, the Toronto field trip is as much about dollars and cents as it is about wins and losses.
Like other cities in the Rust Belt, Buffalo has watched businesses flee and population shrink, and the original five-year $78 million deal signed in 2008 to lease one regular season game to their northern neighbors has been viewed as necessary to the franchise’s long-term survival in the Queen City.
In January, Canadian communications giant Rogers Communications and the Bills renewed their agreement for another five years leaving Buffalonians to fret that their beloved Bills are simply laying the ground work to do what so many other hard-hit businesses have done – leave town.
While cosmopolitan Toronto, now North America’s fourth largest city, has had long flirted with the idea of an NFL franchise to stand alongside its NHL, NBA and MLB teams, the city’s support of American gridiron has been tepid.
The NFL has never quite received the warm embrace it expected in the Great White North, Sunday’s contest attracting just 38,969 customers, leaving large swaths of empty seats despite deeply discounted ticket prices.
The Beach Boys provided the half-time entertainment but could not get the cavernous stadium into a party mood, only the arrival of Toronto’s notorious mayor Rob Ford generating any type of buzz.
“We’re beating a dead horse,” said Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams when asked about the atmosphere at Rogers Centre. “It’s always the same question but at the end of the day we were in a perfectly good position to win the ball game no matter where we were.”
A game featuring the Falcons (now 3-9) against the Bills (4-8), who are all but guaranteed to miss the post-season for a 14th consecutive season, on a cool, drizzly afternoon was hardly the type of matchup to prompt Canadians to open up their wallets even if it was being played in the climate controlled comfort of the Rogers Centre.
The Bills have seldom brought their best north with them and again returned home disappointed after Matt Bryant booted a 36-yard field goal to seal the Falcons’ overtime victory.
Buffalo may be the only one of 32 teams not to make a playoff appearance since 1999, heaping more misery on a franchise that has just once in the last 14 seasons won more games than they have lost, yet there is no lack of interest in putting up the $1 billion plus it will take to acquire the team when 95-year-old owner Ralph Wilson passes on.
Nowhere is that interest higher than in Toronto where Rogers has financed the Bills’ northern ventures. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), the sporting colossus that controls the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs, NBA Raptors and MLS Toronto FC, could also be in the running with rocker Jon Bon Jovi as the front man.
Reports circulated last month that plans were already in motion to put Bon Jovi out front of an MLSE bid since NFL rules stipulate that all franchises must be own privately and not by corporations.
But for the moment at least, the NFL appears more infatuated with the prospect of putting a team in London, where three games will be played at Wembley Stadium next season. The league also has made no secret that returning a team to Los Angeles is near the top of its ‘to do list’.