Bills-in-Toronto experiment DOA

KEN FIDLIN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:46 PM ET

The NFL is coming to Toronto Thursday night for its annual one-night stand and, as usual, it’s going to be awkward.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the NFL and I wish we had a team in Toronto.

This Bills-in-Toronto arrangement, though, just isn’t fair, either to the great football fans of Buffalo or the potentially-loyal football fans of southern Ontario.

At its essence, the grip of professional sports of any kind on a community is about the name on the front of the jersey. It’s about the emotional investment fans make individually and as a group that grows into passion.

Last Sunday, at Ralph Wilson Stadium as the Bills came roaring back in the fourth quarter to throttle their most hated rivals, the Miami Dolphins, there were 70,000 fans going slightly mad.

In those delirious moments, they didn’t care that their Bills were an also-ran, beating up on another also-ran. This was their playoff game or as close to a playoff game as they’re going to get for a while.

How do you think those folks feel about sharing their team?

Thursday night, there will be a big crowd at Rogers Centre and some of the people in the seats will even have paid for their tickets but you can’t count on a fraction of that noise and excitement, no matter what happens in the game.

And, how could you? The NFL, as great as the product is and as powerful as the marketing machine behind it is, cannot manufacture emotional attachment.

And that’s the image that will be flashed into living rooms all over the continent tomorrow: a quiet, largely detached crowd.

That’s not a criticism, but simply circumstance.

Rogers Communications paid a lot of money to get one game a year out of the Bills’ home schedule to prove Toronto is a good and viable NFL market. All it proves, however, is that Toronto sports fans respect that the Bills are Buffalo’s team, not Toronto’s.

It’s like renting somebody else’s kids just so you can enjoy Christmas morning.

Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.

The Greater Toronto Area (defined by the City of Toronto, plus the regional municipaliites of Durham, Halton, Peel and York) has a population of nearly 7 million and is the seventh largest metropolitan area in North America. Just guessing, but I think that’s almost enough to support an NFL team, especially since we’re bigger than at least 70% of the cities that have NFL teams already.

The NFL is all about television and we are aware of the American TV networks’ concerns about audience measurement and advertising reach and the fact there are no affiliates in Canada.

In an age when the world is switching with the speed of light to a global economy, those concerns seem, at least, short-sighted and probably irrelevant.

Obviously Rogers is on the hunt for a team. We daresay there are others waiting in the weeds to get their hands on a franchise and settle here for good, despite a price tag that would probably top $1 billion, plus a new stadium.

There is little doubt that Southern Ontario would embrace an NFL team with the same kind of obsessive passion that fans in other cities, including Buffalo, have found for their teams.

Anybody who has made the trek over to Buffalo for a Bills game can understand what a passionate commitment their fans have made and continue to make for a team that has broken their hearts so many times.

Giving up even one game a year to Toronto makes them nervous. Buffalo doesn’t deserve that. And, frankly, neither does Toronto.


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