Boatmen getting a big say

ROB LONGLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:44 AM ET

PHOENIX -- If you have to fight them, you may as well join them.

That's the survival theory the Argonauts have adopted in dealing with the charge of the NFL's Buffalo Bills into their market.

A source familiar with the initiative said the Argos are leading the way in calling the shots of the Bills plan which will be made official this morning at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's state of the league address.

"The Argos in particular wanted to make sure they were represented in it, which has led to this," a source familiar with the initiative said yesterday. "It was important that they had a say in how it was to happen."

The plan, first unveiled this past October and ratified by the NFL board of governors last week, will include five regular-season and three pre-season games over the next five years.

And most importantly for the CFL, the Argos and Hamilton Tiger-Cats will have an active and aggressive role in ticket sales.

An NFL source said as many as 25,000 tickets will be available to Toronto and Hamilton season-ticket holders. Bills season-ticket subscribers will have dibs on 10,000 and the remaining 20,000 will be sold to the public by a lottery system.

Ticket prices have yet to be finalized, but it is believed they will average at least $200, a significant hike over what the Bills charge for games at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Because of the Argos and Ticats involvement in the process, the Bills will not include the Toronto game as part of its season-ticket package.

With financial concerns in Buffalo, the Bills devised the partial move to tap into the more lucrative Southern Ontario market as a means of survival.

The proposal received unanimous approval from the NFL board, which didn't surprise Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

"They all know what a difficult time we have keeping this franchise going in Buffalo with the population dwindling and jobs disappearing," Wilson told the Buffalo News. "We've just about gone to the limit on regionalization. Moving to Toronto for a couple of games might help."

Initially at least, those regular-season games will take place in December which will keep multiple parties happy. The Bills, in the past, have had difficulty selling tickets to late-season games due to weather concerns which won't be a problem at the Rogers Centre.

For the CFL, a late date ensures no conflict with the Argos and Ticats regular-season schedules or the CFL playoffs.

The Bills' opponent for the Toronto game likely won't be known until the league schedule is unveiled in April. Wilson said this week that he has requested that the NFL doesn't schedule a "bottom-dweller" for the Toronto game.

It has been speculated that the Cleveland Browns would be a logical visitor given the team has long had supporters in southern Ontario.

The Argos' involvement follows the lead of CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, who has forged a strong relationship with Goodell and lobbied to have a say in how any move into the Canadian marketplace evolves.

Cohon will be in the Phoenix area today but does not plan to attend Goodell's address.

As for fears among Buffalo fans that the move signals the eventual shift of the franchise across the border, the team's 89-year-old owner didn't exactly slam the door on the notion.

"They can think whatever they want," Wilson told the News. "I can't speculate the future."


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