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Toronto is the fifth most populous city in North America, and the fourth-largest market in English-speaking North America. 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, was quoted 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."
The first professional U.S. football team to play a home game in Toronto was the Los Angeles Wildcats, a traveling team in the American Football League of 1926; the original AFL was the first major competitor to the National Football League for the dominance of professional football. Because the Wildcats nominally represented Los Angeles, California, a city to which frequent travel still posed a major obstacle, the Wildcats instead were based in Illinois and played most of its games in the home stadiums of its opponents, with the exception of a February 1927 West Coast road trip and their lone game in Toronto. The Toronto game (which the Wildcats lost to the New York Football Yankees, 29–0) was relatively popular; at the time, Canadian football still more closely resembled rugby football and had not yet adopted the forward pass. Three years after the game, Canadian football allowed the forward pass.
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 Toronto from 1993 to 1997; with two featuring 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[when?] 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 was quoted as going to "pursue it more rigorously" as soon as the NFL gave him the word.
For decades, the Bills have had a large market in southern Ontario, with the team averaging 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 U.S., 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 (120 km) 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 annual regular-season and three exhibition NFL games, beginning with the 2008 season, 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. The Bills lost 16-3. Both games had ticket prices from C$55 to C$295 and VIP tickets from C$325 to C$575. The average ticket price of C$183 was significantly above the highest average price in the NFL (after converting to U.S. dollars), and nearly four times the Bills' ticket prices (which were 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 (the Rogers Centre game was at the same date and time as a Hamilton Tiger-Cats road game, 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 paid C$78 million to host the games, hiring a general manager and management staff to handle the games. There is speculation that when Ralph Wilson, Jr. dies, interests (including Godfrey) would bid for the franchise in hopes of moving the Bills to Toronto.
For 2009, ticket prices were lowered an average of 17%. The game was a featured night game on NFL Network's Thursday Night Football package between the Bills and the New York Jets. Again, the Bills lost 19-13.
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 2010.
In 2010, the Bills lost to the Chicago Bears, 22-19.
NFL 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 has repeatedly expressed interest in expanding the series to four games per season—an even split between Buffalo and Toronto; the Bills organization opposes such a move and says that under no circumstance will the Toronto Series be expanded to more than one regular season game each year.
In the 2011 Bills "State of the Team" address, team CEO Russ Brandon said 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 at the appropriate time.
The NFL's dealings with Toronto have led to speculation that the NFL may be considering moving the Bills or another team to Toronto permanently. 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 in 2007 and 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 Patriots game immediately before the blackout deadline. The Bills also failed to sell out the last three home games of the 2011 season; their last game of the season, against the Denver Broncos, was particularly poorly attended, with only 45,000 fans in attendance, half of which were either fans of the Broncos or of Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. The last four home games (not counting the game already in Toronto) of the 2012 season, including a prime time contest, are also unlikely to sell out, with three of the four having over 20,000 seats remaining available as of September 2012. The difficulties in selling tickets for Bills games, particularly late in the season (when western New York's weather becomes much poorer), dates to the 1990s, which was part of the reason behind removing 7,000 seats from the stadium in the 2008 renovation; the problems have escalated in recent years. 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 stadiums; this is also a factor in the team's refusal to take advantage of the loosening of blackout restrictions in 2012, a move that alienated a large number of Bills fans. Additionally, the team has not made the playoffs since 1999, the longest active playoff drought in the league; Buffalo has the dubious distinction of being the only NFL team to have not made the playoffs in the 21st century (the Houston Texans and Detroit Lions broke their playoff droughts in 2011). Owner Ralph Wilson has said that he will never move the team; he turned 94 in 2012 (the oldest owner in the history of the NFL), is in declining health, and has no apparent successor; his family may sell the team after his death.
The Bills' lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium was set to expire following the 2012 season, which would have left the team free to move. In January 2012 the league requested renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium costing approximately $130 million as a condition of renewing the lease. The Bills later indicated that the renovations necessary to keep the team in Buffalo would be over $200 million.
The Bills agreed to a short-term lease extension on Ralph Wilson Stadium in late 2012, one that is pending municipal approval. Although the ten-year deal has extreme punitive penalties for terminating the lease early, it also allows for a smaller buyout of the remaining portion of the lease after seven years. The lease also indicates that the Bills' future in the stadium is unlikely beyond the end of the lease (the county and state only agreed to a portion of the renovation monies the Bills had requested) and that if the Bills are to stay in Buffalo, a newer, more modern stadium (the prospects of which will be studied as part of the lease agreement) would need to be constructed. This also does not necessarily ensure the Bills' presence in Buffalo will be guaranteed for seven years; for instance, the Houston Oilers got out of their lease early by announcing their intentions to leave three years in advance, forcing the city of Houston to terminate the lease early due to a collapse in fan support.
Like the Bills, the Jaguars play in one of the NFL's smallest markets. For several years they had trouble selling out EverBank Field, 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 Jaguars were sold to automobile parts tycoon Shahid Khan in 2011, who made a verbal commitment to keeping the team in Jacksonville; outgoing owner Wayne Weaver rejected overtures from outside interests who would have moved the team; the Jaguars are locked into a lease on the stadium through 2027 and will also become the regular tenants for the NFL International Series games in London beginning in 2013.
The Vikings have been discussed as their lease on the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome expired in 2011; they have so far been unable to secure a new stadium deal in Minneapolis. The team is one of the few NFL franchises losing money. 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 during the 2010 season. Since then, two proposals have been made; one by the city of Minneapolis, and the other by suburban Ramsey County. After the Minnesota Legislature approved a stadium-financing deal for a new stadium at the current Metrodome site in May 2012, the Vikings were effectively eliminated from the pool of potential relocating teams.
Similarly, the fate of the Saints was unsure after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and severely damaged the Louisiana Superdome in 2005. However, the Saints and Louisiana 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, unless there are financial or political roadblocks in LA, 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 Montreal, which has an NFL-capacity stadium and a natural rivalry with Toronto but a history of tepid support of football (as evidenced by the failure of the CFL's original Montreal Alouettes as well as their successors, the Concordes) and a complicated relationship with the rest of English-speaking North America; although a large portion of Montreal speaks English, it is the only city in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec with a sizable Anglophone population, and the province as a whole has an active separatist movement seeking to withdraw from Canadian confederation.
Another obstacle would be the willingness, or ability, of players from the US to play and live in Canada, which has been a cautionary lesson from other non-NHL sports leagues based in Canada like the NBA and MLB. The Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Raptors have had several star players in history demand to be traded away or leave outright. More importantly, players that have previously been convicted of crimes can be banned from either the United States or Canada, which would affect roster moves (for instance, the 2011 Bills Toronto Series game was originally rumored to be against the Philadelphia Eagles before it was realized that Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, a convicted felon, would not have been allowed into Canada to play the game).
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' 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
|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|
|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
|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|
|December 16, 2012||Seattle Seahawks||50||Buffalo Bills||17||Rogers Centre||40,770|
- NFL International Series
- History of the National Football League in Los Angeles
- Toronto sports
- Comparison of Canadian and American football
- CFL USA
- International Bowl
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