Canada: Buffalo Bills look north

A Canadian regimental color guard at the first NFL game played in Canada, 2008.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

TORONTO – Will a Canadian city better known for hockey and Hollywood filmmaking soon be home to the first non-US franchise of the National Football League?

Sports-loving citizens of Toronto hope so. And it does look possible that the Buffalo Bills, the team of Jack Kemp and O.J. Simpson (before he was notorious), could move north.

Buffalo, N.Y., a city in decline, has had difficulty sustaining the team. The Bills ranked in the bottom six of the NFL’s franchise valuations for 2006 and 2007, the year they announced they would begin to play pre- and regular-season games in the wealthier, population-rich birthplace of actress Mary Pickford. The Bills’ owner, Ralph Wilson, has said he won’t sell the franchise while he is alive, so the Toronto venture is seen as an attempt to test the market for a bid.

Several Canadian businessmen have been named as potential buyers – though economic hard times have also affected Toronto. Still, recently reduced prices at Toronto’s Rogers Centre begin at $99 while at the Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo they average $51 (the lowest in the NFL). And it is noteworthy that the Bills’ 2009 “home” prime-time game against the New York Jets will be played in Toronto.

While nationalistic Torontonians worry that the city’s Canadian Football League team, the Argonauts, will be eclipsed by their glamorous American cousins, and many Buffalonians are unhappy about losing even a small percentage of their home schedule, the inching northward continues.

A Bills game versus the Miami Dolphins last December was Canada’s first regular-season taste of the NFL. Rumor has it that more regular-season Bills games will be played in Toronto in 2010, 2011, and 2012. At the least it could mean a time-share between gridirons – at most, the Toronto Bills.

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