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Buffalo Bills renew agreement to play games in Toronto at Rogers Centre

TORONTO – The Bills Toronto Series was unveiled originally as an opportunity to showcase the city as a potential home for an NFL franchise.

Five years later, it seems more about providing premium content for Rogers Communications Inc., than luring a NFL franchise north of the border.

On Tuesday, the Bills and Rogers Media extended the agreement another five years. Starting next season, Buffalo play one regular-season game annually at Toronto’s Rogers Centre as well as 2015 an exhibition contest.

The inaugural agreement expired following the Seattle Seahawks’ lopsided 50-17 win over Buffalo in December. But an extension had been expected as the two sides had been talking for roughly a year.

Financial terms weren’t divulged but the deal is expected to be worth significantly less than the US$78 million Buffalo received in the original agreement. That one called for eight contests (five regular season, three exhibition) to be played in Toronto from 2008 to ’12.

The original series was unveiled by Bills owner Ralph Wilson, the late Ted Rogers, who headed up Rogers Communications Inc., and Larry Tanenbaum of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. Series organizers never spoke about Buffalo’s long-term future in Western New York but called the series an opportunity to showcase Toronto as a viable home for an NFL franchise.

On Tuesday, Rogers Media president Keith Pelley and Bills CEO Russ Brandon were front and centre to announce the extension at Rogers Centre with Series director Greg Albrecht and Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone also attending. There was no talk this time about Rogers potentially luring an NFL franchise north as Pelley said the deal was extended purely for business reasons.

“I can’t speak of what the real reason was five years ago because I wasn’t here,” said Pelley. “We looked at this extension as a chance to bring world-class premium content to two of our entities — Rogers Centre and Sportsnet — and the NFL and Buffalo Bills are that.

“The games will be on Sportsnet and when the games are on Sportsnet or in Rogers Centre we get the double benefit, we also get the national exposure of Rogers as the brand south of the border.”

For Brandon, the extension continues to allow the Bills to strengthen their brand in southern Ontario and Canada’s biggest city. It’s a message he has continually stated since the series’ inception.

“When we embarked on this, one of our plans was to make sure we had more fans coming from southern Ontario back to Ralph Wilson Stadium,” Brandon said. “In five years we have seen that growth go from 11 per cent of our fanbase from the GTA to over 20 per cent.

“So it has certainly worked for us back at Ralph Wilson Stadium and we are going to continue to do everything in our power with Keith and his commitment to improve the experience right here at the Rogers Centre.”

While there’s little question about the NFL’s popularity in Toronto, the series has received a cool reception from the city’s football fans. None of the five regular-season games played here has been a sellout, with just 40,770 taking in the Buffalo-Seattle contest — well below Rogers Centre’s capacity of 53,000 for football.

High-priced tickets — initially averaging over $180 each, compared to roughly US$51 at Ralph Wilson Stadium — and struggling Bills teams combined to make it a tough sell. Buffalo is just 1-4 in Toronto and has missed the NFL playoffs the last 13 years. They havent had a winning season since 2004.

Last year, event organizers slashed some ticket prices to make games more affordable with Pelley saying 60 per cent of tickets for the Buffalo-Seattle game were available for under $100 each. As well, an area was created where fans could tailgate, an experience that’s very popular south of the border as thousands of fans gather outside stadiums to barbecue, socialize and throw a football around prior to games.

Pelley said his organization has learned valuable lessons moving forward.

“We learned we had to price it in a competitive manner and we course corrected last year,” he said. “We also learned that it is critical at how important it is for the NFL’s tailgating experience and last year we shut off some streets and created a tailgate atmosphere.

“We looked at the last five years and what we’ve learned is there’s definitely a massive appetite for the NFL and Buffalo Bills here in Toronto but similarly they want competitive pricing and a great gameday experience.”

Buffalo players have been very critical of playing a home game in Toronto, where fans have been more supportive of the opposition than the Bills. After the loss to Seattle, Bills centre Eric Wood called the series “a joke.”

The Bills enjoy a decided home-field advantage at Ralph Wilson Stadium, thanks to their rabid fans. And the task becomes more difficult for the opposition once the weather turns cold in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Buffalo loses both advantages at Rogers Centre, which is a dome, but Brandon said an improved on-field product would significantly help the Bills in Toronto.

“Our commitment is we have to bring a winning product to the field and that’s where we have fallen down in this series,” he said. “We talked about the atmosphere last year and it was not exactly conducive to what we want to build upon but the reason for that was we didn’t play good football, plain and simple.

“If you look back at the year before when we beat the (Washington) Redskins 23-0 here, we had 11 sacks and four false-start penalties based on the fact the crowd was very very active because we were playing well. We have 55 years of tradition in Orchard Park, we have five years of tradition here.”

There was no mention as to when the Bills games would be played and whether they’d be held during the CFL season — the Toronto Argonauts also play at Rogers Centre — or after the Grey Cup in November. Another scheduling consideration, too, could be the Toronto Blue Jays — which are owned by Rogers — and whether they’re taking part in the baseball playoffs in October.

“We’re committed to trying to get the best possible matchup that we can on the date that works best for us,” Pelley said. “The key is announcing it as soon as possible.”

Unlike five years ago, there’s no question about the Bills’ short-term future in Buffalo after recently extending the lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium for 10 years.

The Bills would have to pay a US$400-million relocation penalty if they left during the first seven years of the lease. That amount would decrease to $29 million over the remaining three years.