Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Toronto Bills

As you may or may not have heard the Buffalo Bills have announced that they will play 8 games over the next five years at the stadium formerly known as the Skydome. The announcement yesterday has caused a whole slew of reactions. Stephen Brunt is convinced the Bills are moving north the moment their ancient owner, Ralph Wilson, shuffles off this mortal coil. The Hamilton Ti-Cats are furious seeing the move as an intrusion on CFL territory. The Argos on the other hand see it as a nice way to sign up season ticket holders (Argos season ticket holders get first dibs on Bills tickets). Let's parse this one step at at a time.

Firstly, this is not a move north. This is a money grab by Wilson. If you could play one game a year in Toronto and make as much as you'll make the entire year in Buffalo, wouldn't you do it? I sincerely doubt that Mr. Wilson who has stuck with the city of Buffalo through thick and thin is going to abandon it in his later years. However, when Mr. Wilson is dead and buried the dynamic changes significantly. Mr. Wilson has already said that the team will be sold not inherited upon his death making it available to the highest bidder. Who at this point would the highest bidder be? Three obvious possibilities:
  1. A local Buffalo person or group tries to save the team. This is a possibility. This scenario recently played out in the NHL in Nashville. However, the Nashville deal was facilitated by the killing of a higher bid from a bidder looking to move the team to Hamilton. The Toronto Maple Leafs are majorly implicated in that move. There also is not a lot of money floating around Buffalo these days. Wilson himself is not a Buffalonian. However, a future owner would undoubtedly seek greener pastures. Where?
  2. Los Angeles. Los Angeles is the one blemish for the great and mighty NFL. The largest sports league in the United States is conspicuously absent from its second largest market. The main obstacle to success in LA is the stadium. The old LA Colosseum is just that, it's old. No luxury boxes, not enough seats. There is simply no willingness right now in LA to build a new stadium. Without some sort of government assistance, stadiums are an expensive proposition. Partially because of this stadium problem, there isn't anyone beating down the NFL's door for a team in LA. This isn't the case in...
  3. Toronto. The 5th largest market in North America is much more likely scenario. First of all, the NFL (as is made clear by this deal) considers Toronto to be part of the Buffalo market. Thus, a move to Toronto would not be so much a relocation as a shift in an existing location. Second, the stadium issue is not as big a deal in Toronto. Toronto has built 3 stadiums in the last 25 years - the Dome, the ACC, and BMO field. All were done with significant public involvement. There is no indication that the city would balk at building an NFL stadium, particularly if it improved the city's perennial Olympic hopes. There is also a group willing and able to own an NFL team in this city. The trio on hand yesterday, Tannenbaum, Godfrey and Rogers, have deep pockets. The pockets get even deeper if Mr. Tannenbaum can convince his partners over at MLSE to expand their empire into football.
So, what's stopping an NFL move to Toronto? The border is an issue. The NFL has international designs but has so far been reluctant to put teams on foreign soil. The CFL also has major objections to such a move. The Argos are fine with a game a year, but a team in their market may change their opinion pretty quickly. The CFL commissioner, Mark Cohon, has already said on record that he would fight an NFL intrusion into Canada with every resource he has. Included in his bag of tricks is trying to wrestle up some political opposition. Another factor oft cited by Bob McCown is money. The NFL's primary source of revenue is from domestic television. A weak market in Buffalo is better for the domestic interest than a non-market in Toronto. However, there is one significant problem with this line of reasoning. While Toronto means nothing to American advertisers. It means quite a bit to Canadian ones. The value of the Canadian television contract would presumably go up if it included a Canadian team.

At the end of the day, I think there's a 60% chance the Bills are in Toronto in the next ten years. What this does to the CFL is unknown. If Toronto fails in the CFL, the league is in big trouble. So, while, as a Bills fan I'd like to see my team in my city, I worry about the impact of the NFL on Canadian Football.

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