'Fertile' or barren?

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:53 AM ET

Exactly one decade ago, Paul Godfrey, standing in the swank Orlando hotel that was hosting the 1998 NFL owners meetings, made a prophetic comment about a member of the league's front office.

"Roger Goodell," Godfrey said on that sunny spring afternoon, "thinks Toronto is a fertile place for the National Football League."

Intrigued by Godfrey's take on this young up-and-coming NFL executive, yours truly introduced himself to Goodell during a break in those meetings back on March 24, 1998.

"Make sure you hear (commissioner Paul Tagliabue's) speech this afternoon," said Goodell, the league's director of international development and club administration at the time. "There will be something of interest to you."

Goodell's tip was right on the mark. During Tagliabue's state-of-the-union address, he listed Houston, Los Angeles and Toronto when the topic of expansion arose.

"With the demonstrated successes of Major League Baseball and the NBA there, (Toronto) is definitely a legitimate contender," Tagliabue said. "Some people think we're missing out not being there already."

Legitimate contender? Tags was exaggerating. It was no secret the league was pushing to get back into the big markets of Houston and Los Angeles, so the common belief was that Toronto was mentioned primarily to put pressure on those cities.

While Houston was eventually awarded the franchise, Toronto would find itself on the back-burner until Tagliabue's retirement in 2006. Taking over as commissioner was Goodell, the man who years earlier allegedly had been intrigued by a potential marriage between the NFL and Canada's largest city.

Just two years into Goodell's watch, such a union has, in fact, taken place. Thanks to an agreement between the Buffalo Bills and Canadian media giant Rogers Communications, Buffalo will play five regular-season games and three exhibition matches in Toronto over the next five years, beginning with a pre-season contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Rogers Centre on Thursday.

Let the conspiracy theories begin.

By watching Rogers shell out $78 million to the Bills for the eight-game package, there are those in western New York who figure Thursday's tilt will mark the beginning of the end for the Bills in Buffalo. With 89-year-old owner Ralph Wilson claiming the team will go to the highest bidder after he passes away, the feeling is that the Ted Rogers-Larry Tanenbaum tandem is waiting to snap up the team.

On the other hand, the skeptics were having a field day early yesterday, viewing the remaining several thousand unsold seats for the Bills-Steelers game as a sign that organizers overestimated the interest -- not to mention the bank accounts -- of football fans in southern Ontario.

Ticket prices reaching the $500 range are steep for a pre-season game. Freebies, meanwhile, have been handed out to organizations such as The Hospital for Sick Children and The United Way, an act the naysayers claim is a desperate effort to make the 53,000-seat stadium appear full.

Rogers officials, understandably, shoot down the notion they are hiding anything.

"We have sponsorship agreements or relationships with Sick Kids and The United Way," Anthony Antonelli, the senior director of marketing for Rogers Media, said last night. "It's a chance for them to enjoy NFL football too.

"On the (ticket) pricing side, we said from the beginning that the NFL is a premium spectacle. That's why we paid $78 million to bring the eight games to Toronto. We feel it is well worth it."

BILLS ISSUE RELEASE

Several hours after Antonelli said about 2,500 tickets remained for purchase at Ticketmaster, the Bills issued a press release last night saying all the tickets for the game had been distributed, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of having the game blacked out in western New York.

Goodell himself is a native of the Buffalo area, having grown up just across Lake Ontario from Toronto in Jamestown, N.Y.

Come Thursday, his alleged long-time belief of Toronto as a "fertile place" for the NFL will undergo the first of many tests.


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