- National Football League in Toronto
Toronto is the fifth most populous city in North America, and the fourth-largest market in English-speaking North America, making it an intriguing city in which to operate an NFL franchise. While the Canadian Football League (CFL) has professional Canadian football teams in Toronto (the Argonauts) and nearby Hamilton (the Tiger-Cats), there are no professional American football teams in Canada, NFL or otherwise. Despite being in Canada, Toronto is physically farther south than existing NFL franchises in Minnesota, Seattle and Green Bay, and has teams in each of the other major professional sports leagues: the Maple Leafs in hockey, the Blue Jays in baseball, the Raptors in basketball, Toronto F.C. in soccer, and the Rock in lacrosse. Furthermore, San Diego Chargers executive Dean Spanos, speaking in regards to international NFL play, stated in January 2008 that "the long term goal is globalizing our sport" and that "it is possible that within five or 10 years, the league will have franchises outside the United States."
Toronto would most notably be competing with Los Angeles, the second most-populous city in United States, for an NFL franchise. Relocation of an existing team is the most likely scenario; at 32 teams (which divides the league into even divisions), the likelihood of an expansion is minimal.
The NFL has had a presence in Toronto since 1959, when the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League played three NFL teams in a three-season span. These exhibition games, which had been first tried in Ottawa in 1950 and were later staged in Montreal, were played by CFL rules in the first half and NFL rules in the second. Despite the Argos having the services of all-star fullback Cookie Gilchrist, injury problems led to many of the Argonauts' losses; the Argos at this time were in a rut and had missed the playoffs several times since 1953.
After several years, the American Bowl series brought three preseason games to the city between 1993 and 1997, two of which featured the Bills.
Former Toronto Blue Jays CEO and President Paul Godfrey has been interested in pursuing an NFL franchise for Toronto since 1988. Before recent developments, most skeptics believed that it would be too expensive to bring an NFL team to Toronto and most possible investors may shy away from the approximately US$1 billion price tag that an NFL franchise comes with. Additionally, an NFL team in Toronto would likely have to pay its players in U.S. dollars while reporting its revenues in Canadian dollars--the same anomaly that faces the NHL's Canadian teams Then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue himself dismissed the prospects of a Toronto team in 2006, although he left the door open to including Toronto in the NFL International Series.
The late Ted Rogers, owner of Rogers Communications, and Larry Tanenbaum met in 2008 and discussed the possibility of an NFL franchise in Toronto. Tannenbaum said that he and Rogers were "highly interested" in bringing an NFL franchise to Toronto. He also stated that he was going to "pursue it more rigorously" as soon as the NFL gave him word.
For many years, the Bills have had a large market in southern Ontario. In fact, the Bills average 15,000 Canadian fans to Ralph Wilson Stadium per game. On October 18, 2007, the Bills announced plans that they were seeking approval to play a pre-season and at least one regular season game in Toronto in an attempt to capitalize on the Canadian market. The team has a Canadian sales office and a radio affiliate in Toronto, CJCL. The NFL's television rules have also been applied in a similar manner to secondary markets in the United States, so that nearly all Bills games are televised in Toronto, on CFTO and CITY, except for home games that do not sell out (the Toronto television market extends to the Canadian border in Fort Erie, Ontario, well within the 75-mile radius of Ralph Wilson Stadium, and is thus subject to the league's blackout policy).
On January 30, 2008, it was announced that the Bills reached an agreement to play five regular-season and three exhibition NFL games over the next five years in Toronto. On Thursday, April 3 (although it had been leaked through various sources as early as early March), it was announced that the Bills would play the Pittsburgh Steelers in a pre-season game on Thursday, August 14, 2008, at Rogers Centre. On April 15, the regular season match was revealed, with the Bills hosting their division rivals, the Miami Dolphins, on December 7. Both games had standard ticket prices ranging from C$55 to C$295 and VIP tickets from C$325 to C$575. The average standard ticket price of C$183 was significantly above the highest average price in the NFL, that of the New England Patriots, at US$88, and nearly four times the Bills' ticket prices (which are the lowest in the league). The first of these games took place in the 2008 NFL season. The preseason game against the Steelers was one day before the Toronto Argonauts played in the same stadium and was the same date and time as a Hamilton Tiger-Cats game (although the latter game was away at in Winnipeg). Buffalo won the game, 24–21, but the game was marred by reports that organizers had to give away over 10,000 tickets to assure a sellout crowd, an accusation Ted Rogers denied. The regular season game against Miami was played after the end of the 2008 CFL season; the Bills, led by backup quarterback J. P. Losman, lost to the Dolphins 16–3, eliminating them from playoff contention for the ninth straight year. Reportedly, about half of the fans in attendance were Dolphins fans.
Rogers Communications is paying C$78 million to host the games, and have hired a general manager and management staff to handle the games. There is speculation that when Ralph Wilson, Jr. dies, interests (including Godfrey) may bid for the franchise in hopes of moving the Bills to Toronto.
Rogers Communications announced in March 2009 that it was in a position to renegotiate the agreement and that they would be able to land another regular-season Bills game to create a three-game package beginning in the 2010 season. League officials were considering expanding the season to 18 games in 2011, possibly incorporating international play, but such an expansion was not included in the next collective bargaining agreement. Regardless, any additional regular season games in Toronto would require the approval of the NFL owners, and if the game resulted in the loss of a regular season game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, it would also require the approval of Erie County and the Empire State Development Corporation. Rogers expressed interest in expanding the series to as many as four games per season—an even split between Buffalo and Toronto—in the future.
In the 2011 Bills "State of the Team" address, Bills CEO Russ Brandon stated that the series has been a major success and that it has increased the Toronto share of ticket sales by 44% from prior to the series, despite the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and the team's overall decline in ticket sales. The team intends to renew the Toronto Series agreement in conjunction with its lease on Ralph Wilson Stadium when the time comes to do so.
The NFL's dealings with Toronto have led to speculation that the NFL may be considering moving the Bills or another team to Toronto on a permanent basis. The Bills are the most frequently named team for such a move, due to their standing connections with Ontario. In addition, the Bills play in one of the league's smallest markets; they have no waiting list for season tickets, and though they avoided blackouts every year between 2007–2008, in the 2010 season three of their seven regular season games at Ralph Wilson Stadium were blacked out, as was their annual "Kids Day" preseason game (which normally sells out with its discounted tickets for children), and the team narrowly avoided a fourth blackout when a local restaurateur bought the remaining tickets for a New England Patriots game immediately before the blackout deadline. Western New York's economic problems force the Bills to keep their average ticket prices among the lowest in the NFL, though several teams offer lower prices than the Bills do, offset by higher prices in other parts of the stadium. Additionally, the team has not made the playoffs since 1999 (tied with the Detroit Lions for the longest active playoff drought in the league), and while owner Ralph Wilson has stated that he will never move the team, he is the oldest NFL team owner at 92 and has no apparent successor; his family may sell the team after his death. In addition, the Bills' lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium will expire in 2012, after which point the team would be free to move.
Like the Bills, the Jaguars play in one of the NFL's smallest markets. For several years they had trouble selling out their stadium, culminating in the 2009 season, when all but one of their home games was blacked out; however in 2010 a public relations push raised their ticket sales considerably, and Jacksonville had no blackouts that year.
The Vikings (who, unlike Jacksonville, have not had any blackouts since 1997) have been discussed as their lease on the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome expires in 2011; they have so far been unable to secure a new stadium deal in Minneapolis. A deal for a new Vikings Stadium was in the works, thus quieting relocation talk, but the negotiations fell through, and the situation was further complicated by the collapse of the Metrodome's inflatable roof prior to the end of the 2010 season. Since then, two new proposals have been made—one by the city of Minneapolis, and the other by suburban Ramsey County.
Similarly, the fate of the Saints was unsure after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and severely damaged the Louisiana Superdome in 2005. However, the team and the state of Louisiana later struck a deal to repair and renovate the Superdome, securing the Saints ties to New Orleans; the Saints' attachment to New Orleans was further cemented when they won Super Bowl XLIV in 2010.
Despite these inroads, many commentators consider NFL expansion into Toronto unlikely for the foreseeable future. The biggest roadblock is the league's determination to place a team in Los Angeles, which NFL official Eric Grubman calls "one of our top goals". According to some commentators, this focus on Los Angeles will likely override any prospects of moving into Toronto.
The Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts currently play in the city and have in the past been protected from American competition. The World Football League intended to place a franchise in Toronto known as the Toronto Northmen, but then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau threatened to pass a Canadian Football Act to prevent such a move. The WFL backed down and moved the team to Memphis, Tennessee, where it became known as the Memphis Southmen and later the Mid-South Grizzlies in a failed bid to join the NFL. (However, there were no complaints when the same league briefly moved the struggling Detroit Wheels to London, Ontario, which had no CFL team at the time, and still does not.) American teams that have made their home in Toronto include the Continental Football League's Toronto Rifles (1965–67, founded as the Quebec Rifles in 1964) and the Arena Football League's Toronto Phantoms (2000–02, founded as the New York CityHawks in 1997 and, incidentally, owned by Rogers during its time in Toronto). The Rifles, too, faced resistance from the CFL, as the Argonauts signed Rifles coach Leo Cahill, quarterback Tom Wilkinson and running back Joe Williams a few weeks into the 1967 season, forcing the team to fold. Any NFL team that entered the Toronto market would have to deal with the Argonauts as well as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who play in nearby Hamilton, Ontario and have vehemently opposed any presence of the NFL in Canada.
The Tiger-Cats responded to the Bills' move to play games in Toronto by making an April Fool's Day mock announcement on April 1, 2008 that they would move one of their home games against the Montreal Alouettes to Ralph Wilson Stadium (even though the playing surface at that stadium is too small to accommodate a CFL-size field), and would play the Bills in a rematch of their 1961 contest, which the Tiger-Cats won, in June 2008 (when the Bills would be in minicamp and the Ti-Cats would be playing preseason). Former NFL receiver Oronde Gadsden even went further and suggested in February 2009 that a CFL expansion franchise be placed in nearby Rochester.
Another major issue would be the stadium. Although Paul Godfrey believed that the Rogers Centre could be home to an NFL franchise, it is unclear if the Rogers Centre could be a long-term home. Rogers Centre (formerly SkyDome), a retractable roof stadium, has a maximum capacity of 54,088 when configured for CFL games; in comparison, although the Centre's capacity is above the NFL's 50,000-seat minimum, it would still be the smallest capacity stadium in the league, since the smallest NFL stadium in terms of capacity (excluding the exhibition-only stadiums in Canton and Honolulu) is Chicago's Soldier Field, which has 61,500 seats. While extra seats could be added near the end zones as a result of the shorter NFL field (an NFL exhibition at the SkyDome in 1995 fit almost 55,800 fans into the stadium), a large-scale expansion would be very difficult because of the stadium's design. This means that a new football specific stadium would have to be built. Then-mayor David Miller, has stated that funding for a new stadium would not come from the City of Toronto and would have to come from private sources. Counteracting this small capacity is the large number of luxury boxes in the stadium, which count as "unshared" revenue in the NFL's revenue sharing and collective bargaining agreements.
In 2011 the new mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, stated he favored an NFL team in Toronto, although he also ruled out public financing for a new stadium. He and brother Doug Ford, a member of the Toronto City Council, plan on presenting a proposal to league owners regarding the potential relocation of either the Jaguars or the Saints to Toronto, with the intention of relocating another team to Los Angeles and building a larger stadium in Toronto. This would cause serious problems for Buffalo, since not only would it possibly lose its Canadian fan base, said loss would render Buffalo nearly incapable of supporting an NFL team such as the Bills. Unless the Bills were the team to relocate to Los Angeles, there would be few relocation options for the Bills if two teams, not including the Bills, were to take the Toronto and Los Angeles markets. It would also be virtually impossible to contract the franchise (the last attempt to do so in a major league, the Montreal Expos in 2002, was rejected by the players' union), leaving the league in the awkward situation of having to maintain a team without an NFL-caliber market to place it. Incidentally, the largest market outside of Toronto and Los Angeles without an NFL team is Montréal, which has an NFL-capacity stadium and a natural rivalry with Toronto.
Ted Rogers, the man responsible for leasing the Bills from Ralph Wilson for the Toronto Series and considered a leading contender for landing a Toronto NFL franchise, died in December 2008 at the age of 75. The lease was transferred to Rogers's company, Rogers Communications, in which Rogers had held a majority stake. Corporate ownership is forbidden under the league's ownership policy, which would not allow the company to buy the team outright.
CFL interleague games in southern Ontario
Date Visitor Score Home Score Stadium Attendance August 5, 1959 Chicago Cardinals 55 Toronto Argonauts 26 Exhibition Stadium 27,770 August 3, 1960 Pittsburgh Steelers 43 Toronto Argonauts 16 Exhibition Stadium 23,570 August 2, 1961 St. Louis Cardinals 36 Toronto Argonauts 7 Exhibition Stadium 24,376 August 8, 1961 Buffalo Bills 21 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 38 Civic Stadium 12,000
American Bowls and NFL exhibitions
Date Visitor Score Home Score Stadium Attendance August 15, 1960 Chicago Bears 16 New York Giants 7 Varsity Stadium 5,401 August 14, 1993 Cleveland Browns 12 New England Patriots 9 SkyDome 33,021 August 12, 1995 Dallas Cowboys 7 Buffalo Bills 9 SkyDome 55,799 August 16, 1997 Green Bay Packers 35 Buffalo Bills 3 SkyDome 53,896 August 14, 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers 21 Buffalo Bills 24 Rogers Centre 48,434 August 19, 2010 Indianapolis Colts 21 Buffalo Bills 34 Rogers Centre 39,583
Regular season games
Date Visitor Score Home Score Stadium Attendance December 7, 2008 Miami Dolphins 16 Buffalo Bills 3 Rogers Centre 52,134 December 3, 2009 New York Jets 19 Buffalo Bills 13 Rogers Centre 51,567 November 7, 2010 Chicago Bears 22 Buffalo Bills 19 Rogers Centre 50,746 October 30, 2011 Washington Redskins 0 Buffalo Bills 23 Rogers Centre 51,579
- NFL International Series
- History of the National Football League in Los Angeles
- Toronto sports
- Comparison of Canadian and American football
- CFL USA
- International Bowl
- Bills Toronto Series
- ^ a b Canadian expansion not on NFL radar. CBC Sports. 3 February 2006.
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