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Can Bills make a case that there's any net gain to the Toronto deal?

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We should find out this week if the Buffalo Bills are going to cling to some slim hope that their Toronto series is going to pay dividends in the future.

We know the series has paid big dividends in the past. The Bills’ first, five-year deal with Rogers Communications Inc. paid roughly double per game what the Bills made for games in Orchard Park. It was a windfall.

But the new, five-year deal with Rogers, which began in 2013 and runs through 2017, isn’t nearly as lucrative. In fact, we hear the Bills are not making much more per game under the new deal than they’re making in Orchard Park.

Now factor in the fact the 2013 game – an overtime loss for the Bills to the Atlanta Falcons – was the worst stinker yet in the six-year series. That’s worst, as in the most galling loss (the Bills blew a 14-0 lead) and the most disappointing atmosphere for any game yet. After six years, there still were just about as many fans of the opponent as for the Bills in the stands. The number of paying fans in the seats hasn’t grown a bit. In fact, it has decreased.

The Bills are expected to send out season-ticket renewal invoices soon.

It will be a blow to the players and the coaching staff if those invoices include only seven regular-season games (meaning one is going to Rogers Centre).

“Nothing takes a back seat to winning” is a philosophy Bills President Russ Brandon has repeated, most prominently in the days following the loss to Atlanta. The players know that playing in Toronto hurts their chances of winning compared with playing in Orchard Park.

Backing out of the deal after just one year would be a crummy thing to do to a business partner. Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. absolutely loved the original Toronto deal, which means team treasurer Jeff Littmann favors the deal. Littmann and Mary Owen, Bills executive vice president for strategic planning, negotiated the extension with Rogers. Are they willing to pull the plug?

Rogers might be willing to end the deal, considering it’s hard to see how the company is benefitting. Rogers has a terrible time selling tickets, even at more reasonable rates. The appearance of the Beach Boys as a halftime act at the Falcons game was embarrassing. Nothing says minor league sports like the Beach Boys, a staple of Bisons games in the 1980s. Rogers can argue the Bills have given them a poor product to market. But a big problem for the Bills is Toronto sports fans look down their noses at Buffalo. Toronto is bigger league than Buffalo. It seems clear -- from this perspective, anyway -- Toronto sports fans never will embrace the Bills.

So exactly what are the Bills gaining in Toronto? Under the original deal one might make the case the money was helping the Bills’ cash flow, which helps the team keep pace with the revenue of other teams. It’s harder to make that case now. The Bills say their Canadian customers have increased in Orchard Park since the original deal was signed. One could make a case the Bills would do a good job of attracting Canadians without the game in Toronto.

It’s still true that Toronto could represent a growth market for the franchise, and the team has tapped into all the growth it can realize going east, toward Rochester. But it sure looks like it’s going to take time – maybe a long time – to turn Toronto into a positive for the team on the field. Are the Bills willing to tough it out through more crummy game-day experiences, like the one in December, in the hope Toronto some day can become a safe haven? We’re going to find out.

  • regdunlop1

    There is absolutely NO overwhelming reason why the " Bills" should continue to squander the "13th man" advantage by playing in another country any longer...that horse has left the corral...the western New York fans have supported and stayed with this team over fifty years through all the ups and downs and deserve to have their team at home at least eight times a season...end of discussion...

    • BuffaloFan4Life

      Great take, reg. I agree 200%. And that is why I still say if they build a duplicate of Lucas Oil Field right smack in downtown Buffalo, complete with that awesome retractable glass roof, despite all the naysayers and "Buffalo is too poor of a market" whiners, BUFFALO would fill that thing up week after week, and it would be a complete success.

  • Paul Bruhns

    OK, so the business case analysis is in... no one wants a game in Toronto. Not the Canadian fans, not the WNY fans... no one. Good experiment on testing regionalization. The results are in "Cancel the Toronto Deal".

  • Jesse Czelusta

    I still think the Toronto experiment was worth the trouble, it exposed that Toronto is not a hotbed for NFL football. if Toronto wanted an NFL team they would have had one by now. By the Bills doing what they did, the took thee fear of Toronto head on. What's there to fear? A city of four million that is historically known as fair weather fans when it comes to anyone but the Leafs. Hey, how about a weekend Bluejays series down here in Buffalo? The reverse would happen and Buffalo would have a larger gate than Skydome.

    • Ballislife

      I'm guessing u don't follow the nba no offense. But I live in buffalo and love the raptors. They have a fair sized fanbase

  • Joseph Lojacono

    As I've said many times before, the increase in attendance from fans in Southern Ontario probably has nothing to do with the Toronto series - it's fans closer to the border - that want nothing to do with going to TO - who enjoy going to the Ralph.

    • BullGuy

      There's that plus the fact that Canadians WANT to experience the NFL tailgate at The Ralph which is a ton better than the tailgate at the Rogers Centre. The only downside will be the drop in the value of the Canadian dollar this year......for the last 2 years or so, the dollar at or near par has helped.

    • John Brown

      I agree. I and the 8-10 folks I attend games with all fall into that category. Live in Niagara, enjoy coming down to Orchard Park, have no interest in driving twice as far for less than half the experience and consequently have never attended a Toronto series game.

  • BuffaloFan4Life

    Mr. Gaughn, well said, sir! Outstanding article on a sad deal. I don't expect Team President Jeffry Littman....er, I mean Russ Brandon, to back out this season, but man it sure would be a great surprise for the long suffering season ticket holders, that's for sure!

  • FreeSites

    Win, win creative solution! Sell 7 games to Bills traditional season ticket holders reserving the 'Toronto' 8th game for Roger's at "the Ralph" not Toronto at an acceptable price guarantee. Bills traditional season ticket holders get the option to buy from Rogers upfront (probably at a premium) AND the 'right of 1st refusal' to buy back their seats if Rogers doesn't sell. More fans, more wins!

  • d0ubled1amond

    - There are a lot of NFL fans in Toronto, unfortunately for the bills these fans are Bills / Browns / Steelers / Lions/ Cowboys / Packers and Bears fans, given the existing agreement the crowd will always be mixed. This is buffalo's team not Toronto's.
    - Bills fans from Canada would rather go to the Ralph - tailgating is better and ticket prices are lower
    - The NFL model is based on a large number of season ticket holders and small amount of single game ticket buyers / basicly no walkup - This game in Toronto has no season ticket base - The Buffalo season ticket holders dont want to go as a protest / travel distance / atmosphere
    - Rogers will want to continue this agreement as it keeps the door open to a team moved permanently to Toronto. (London it appears has leapfrogged Toronto in line for first franchise outside of USA)

  • jwdundee

    It's a cash grab. Nothing more.

  • Hal Jam

    There are Bills fans in Toronto, however, they would rather watch the game at the Ralph too. I've spoken to many Toronto fans who have told me this -- it's all about the atmosphere, and in Toronto you don't get it.

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Vic Carucci returned to The Buffalo News as a Bills beat reporter in September. Carucci covered the Bills for 17 years before joining NFL.com as a columnist in 1999. Prior to rejoining The News, he spent three years as a senior editor for the Cleveland Browns.

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida.