Big Ben could open Bills era in T.O.

ROB LONGLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:40 AM ET

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit paydirt yesterday with a fat new contract extension. And if Toronto organizers have their way, he'll get a chance to show some of that worth this summer at the Rogers Centre.

A source familiar with the Buffalo Bills' foray into Southern Ontario said that the Steelers are one of the high-profile teams being seriously courted for the pre-season game that will kick off the NFL team's eight game series over five seasons.

Better yet, indications are the Toronto date will either be the second or third of four pre-season games, meaning starters for both teams are likely to see considerable playing time in the late-August contest.

"(The Steelers) would be huge for the market place (if it happens)," the source said yesterday. "Great tradition. Super Bowl champions three years ago. A team that will be considered a serious playoff contender."

The pre-season schedule won't be released until April, but representatives from the Bills and the Rogers Communications-Larry Tanenbaum group, which owns the rights to the Toronto games, have discussed the possibility with Steelers officials. The Steelers have long had a large fan base in Southern Ontario, which would add to the attraction.

The Bills, Toronto organizers and the league office all recognize the importance of getting the series off to a rousing start and given the often mundane nature of NFL pre-season action want to make it as attractive as possible.

Bills owner Ralph Wilson has made it clear that he wants teams scheduled for the Toronto games to be a solid draw. The league's board of governors is fully behind the initiative, endorsing the Bills' expansion into Toronto with a unanimous 32-0 vote. As well, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been active in discussions.

The regular-season game, which won't take place until December, also is likely to feature a playoff-calibre team. The Seattle Seahawks are considered one of the frontrunners for that contest.

Detailed ticket pricing and purchase policies have yet to be announced, but the team and the Toronto group are urging fans to register at www.billsintoronto.com. to become eligible for a lottery which will be used to distribute the majority of tickets.

Argos season-ticket holders will have first dibs on 20,000 seats for all eight games and the CFL team is aggressively trumpeting that fact in marketing sales for the 2008 season.

Should the Toronto group land the Steelers for the pre-season tilt, fans here would get the chance to see one of the league's most popular draws. Roethlisberger, who signed a $102-million US contract extension yesterday, led the Steelers to a pair of AFC Championship games in his four-year career.

The pre-season game is expected to be scheduled for late August and is likely to be a night game.

The Bills will play regular-season games in Toronto through the 2012 season with exhibition contests in 2002, 2010 and 2012.


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