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.