Bills' migration north beginsT.O. games groundwork for more
By STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media
|Bills owner Ralph Wilson (right) and Ted Rogers announce how fans can get their hands on tickets for games in Toronto. (SUN MEDIA/Alex Urosevic)
The proverbial Toronto foot is now in the door.
The rest of this story will unfold over the next five years, with eight Buffalo Bills games to be played at Rogers Centre and all of it with a rather ghoulish watch on the life of Ralph Wilson Jr. and that of his struggling football franchise.
The franchise is 49 years old. The owner turns 90 in October.
Both, in National Football League draft lingo, are on the clock.
This life insurance policy of sorts -- disguised as a five-year agreement between Ted Rogers, Larry Tanenbaum and Wilson -- is expected to end with an NFL franchise, likely the Bills, winding up in Toronto.
That is the deal nobody wanted to speculate about yesterday. This isn't just a plan to bring eight games to Toronto. This is a plan to lay the groundwork to finally bring an NFL team to a city that, frankly, deserves NFL football.
"We're not getting into hypotheticals," said Phil Lind, the football freak who has been Rogers' right-hand man for the past four decades, when asked about the future.
"I'll let you draw your own conclusions," said Paul Godfrey, who has been chasing the NFL for most of the past 20 years.
So we will draw our own conclusions. And this is our hypothesis: Ralph Wilson will not live forever and already has said he will not will his football team to his family because of the massive inheritance tax involved.
That means, upon his passing, his estate will put the franchise up for sale and will be obligated, by law, to sell to the highest bidder.
By that point, and through the approval of the NFL, Toronto will have established itself as part of the Bills' territory. And by that time, the Toronto people who previously investigated the possibility of purchasing existing NFL teams -- and that group includes Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of the board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. -- will be ready and willing, with a season-ticket base and a built-in audience, to bid heavily for the then-for-sale Bills.
The first and obvious target of Tanenbaum and friends is the Bills, who already have sold off a piece of their schedule to Toronto interests. That's how this deal works. The Rogers people bought the eight games outright, at a rather hefty price. Their goal, I am told, is not necessarily to make money on these games, but to position themselves in the best possible way to proceed with the NFL.
No doubt, there will be a political fight of some sort to keep the Bills in Buffalo after Wilson is gone. Some political mouthpiece will argue that the Bills are the only NFL team in the state of New York -- the Jets and Super Bowl champion Giants play their home games in New Jersey -- and others will join the fight.
The question is: How much fight will be left in a town of dwindling population and diminishing economics? Wilson even joked yesterday that if the Canadian dollar continued to rise, the deal (in the short term) will be even better for the Bills.
And as for the Argonauts and the Canadian Football League, they stand at the side of the road, symbolically with cup in hand. They are deeply affected bystanders to their own future. For now, any Argos season-ticket holder, up to the first 20,000 (there are currently about half that) gets first dibs on Bills tickets in Toronto. In the short term, the Argos are banking that a boost in subscribers from those wanting Bills seats will benefit them.
The long-term future of the Argos -- and maybe the CFL as a hole -- is less certain.
This is, after all, a big-league city, with big expensive homes, big expensive sporting franchises and times change. These Bills tickets --however they are eventually priced, available to non-Argo subscribers by lottery -- will be nasty expensive.
And the sad reality of that is, people will pay. The way they pay for Maple Leafs tickets. This is, after all, Toronto.
And yesterday, at a downtown hotel ballroom, Ralph Wilson repeated a story he had heard about the new Yankee Stadium. He was told that the best seats in the house, not even considering the personal seat licences, will cost $2,400 apiece.
"I like it," said Ted Rogers, without missing a beat.
Get used to it: The NFL is coming to a domed stadium near you.