ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – No, Canada.
Buffalo Bills president Russ Brandon announced Wednesday that the team is done playing regular-season “home” games in Toronto after reaching an agreement with Rogers Communications to terminate the four remaining years left on the series.
The decision did not come as a surprise after the Bills had a 1-5 record since the series was established with a five-year agreement in 2008. The Bills and Rogers then reached another five-year deal in 2013 to extend the series.
Last month, new Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula told The Associated Press they were negotiating to cancel the series. In March, the Bills and Rogers postponed playing this year’s game to evaluate and determine how to improve the atmosphere of games played in Toronto’s downtown domed Rogers Centre.
Following a 34-31 overtime loss to Atlanta last year, Brandon and Bills players complained about giving away home-field advantage by playing in front of small and relatively indifferent crowds in Toronto.
Receiver Steve Johnson questioned whether the warm-weather Falcons “fixed” the schedule in getting to play indoors. Center Eric Wood had referred to the games in Toronto as “a joke.”
“We greatly appreciate the support we’ve received over the past seven years from all of the tremendous people at Rogers Communications,” Brandon said in a statement released by the team Wednesday. “We will continue to work hard to solidify our footprint in southern Ontario.”
In becoming the NFL’s first team to play annual games outside of the United States, the Bills launched the series in a bid to increase their exposure and build their fan base in Canada’s largest city and financial capital. Toronto is about a two-hour drive from Buffalo and counted as part of the Bills market.
The Bills did get an initial windfall after Rogers agreed to pay the team $78 million to essentially lease eight games: five in the regular season and three in the preseason. That was almost double what the Bills were projected to generate if those games were played at their home, Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Bills also experienced a bump in selling tickets to Canadians. Last year, the team estimated that southern Ontario fans accounted for about 18 per cent of its season-ticket sales, surpassing their support from nearby Rochester.
The series, however, never paid off in wins for the Bills or generated a buzz in Toronto.
High ticket prices, initially averaging about $180, a lengthy playoff drought that began in 2000 and the lack of atmosphere in the cavernous domed stadium contributed to the series’ lack of success.
The announced crowd of 38,969 for last year’s game against Atlanta was by far the smallest of the series, and well short of the stadium’s NFL capacity of 46,470, not including suites. Rogers did announce the first four regular-season games had been sellouts before later acknowledging the totals included thousands of free tickets.
The games also attracted a larger than usual contingent of visiting team supporters.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL