|Gary Wiepert/Associated Press|
|The future fortunes of Fred Jackson's Buffalo Bills depend on fans' willingness to embrace the team.|
Even before the Buffalo Bills played their first regular-season game in Toronto just over five years ago, Scott Sarama anticipated how discomfiting that moment would be. Sarama grew up in western New York, buffeted since the 1970s by the occasional dread inspired by talk of the Bills' relocation. He founded a fan website, twobillsdrive.com -- named in deference to the home team's street address of One Bills Drive, located deep in a residential neighborhood of Orchard Park, N.Y.
The team's foray to Toronto's bright lights and deep pockets felt to many Buffalo residents like a rejection, like the first distancing before the full breakup with an ardent fan base in a struggling city. And Sarama knew that the full force of that stiff arm would be received the first time fans in Buffalo tuned in to watch their team play a regular-season game in another city in 2008, no matter the final score.
The Bills lost that early December contest, as they did all but one of the six regular-season games they played in front of what turned out to be, at best, a neutral -- and shrinking -- audience in Toronto's Rogers Centre, one that might have been most enlivened by the presence last season of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford chomping on chicken wings. And so, when the team announced earlier this week that it would not play in Toronto this fall -- it was called a one-year postponement only, although it is almost impossible to envision a return, despite the contract that remains in place -- it was a necessary and correct triumph for the football interests of a team for which monetary considerations can never be too far out of the conversation.
The financial windfall that had filled the Bills' coffers as a result of the first deal had run out, replaced by a more modest contract that decidedly did not make the competitive disadvantage worth it as the team tries to gain momentum around a young coach and quarterback. But while Sarama's message boards were overwhelmingly filled with delight over the news that Buffalo would host all eight home games this season, Sarama's glee was more guarded. He called the Toronto experiment "one long, six-year disappointment." With a finely honed sense of fatalism, he also recognized that his team is hardly in the clear, that the need for financial support that led the Bills to Toronto in the first place has not abated. Abandoning the Toronto initiative now places the responsibility for the Bills' long-term viability -- beyond 95-year-old owner Ralph Wilson's stated intent that the team will be sold after his death -- squarely on Bills fans themselves.
"Do we feel better? Sure," Sarama said. "But you look at these billion-dollar stadiums that go up around the country. Down in Dallas, here in (New Jersey). It's tough to see the numbers, given the lack of big-time corporations in the Buffalo area. When the team is finally sold, and you have to figure what ticket prices have to go to to support the sale -- without the books in front of you, it's hard to see how the numbers match. I'm not necessarily encouraged or discouraged. I'm still steady state. I never saw the Toronto series as the solution, though."
It was never that, for a variety of reasons. Rogers Centre was substandard as a football stadium, and the ticket prices were set too high from the very start. Torontonians never fully embraced a losing team that was not theirs and, most particularly, was not playing hockey.
But the series did do some limited good. The Bills, who need to be a regional team to make up for the gap that comes with being located in a relatively small market, say there is more corporate support flowing to the team from Toronto-area business. The team also doubled the percentage of fans from Southern Ontario who come to games in Buffalo, outpacing the percentage of fans that come from Rochester, N.Y., where the Bills hold training camp. Ironically, Canadian fans prefer to attend games in Buffalo -- where mammoth tailgate parties are staged next to residents' backyards, where fans ask the neighbors to use their bathrooms and are welcomed in -- because of the atmosphere.
That is what was lacking in the antiseptic Rogers Centre and its environs. And that has always been part of Buffalo's charm: that the Bills are a team as unassuming as the city, with a home field dug deep into the earth so that it does not rise too high over the homes that sit just a few hundred yards away. On game days, the owners of those homes sit in plastic chairs that face the stadium. It is, as Sarama put it, "a blue-collar stadium for a blue-collar town."
In the ledger books, though, that neighborhood team is in a constant fight not to slip into the lowest rungs of the league's earners. What this week's announcement means is that now the Bills will need those fans to leave the comfort of their yards for the seats that they've struggled to fill even since their glory days.
"Obviously, last year, we had to really work for our sell-outs, understandably so," said Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon. "That's something that we're willing to take on, that challenge. We have very passionate fans and tremendous fans, but we have to really work to sell tickets here, as we've discussed in the past. We're not satisfied until every seat in this building is sold."
This will be a serious test for this market, with potential franchise purchasers undoubtedly taking note of whether a smaller-market team with an aging stadium is sustainable -- or ripe for eventual relocation -- as the NFL grows ever more lucrative.
In the best of times -- Frank Reich's miracle comeback playoff victory, Jim Kelly's final game, the four consecutive Super Bowl years -- the Bills struggled to sell out, and often did not. That was well before high-definition television posed a recognizable challenge to attendance in even the wealthiest, most crowded markets. Since then, the franchise also has been forced to battle the NFL's longest non-playoff streak, now at 14 seasons.
But Buffalo and its Bills got a big victory this week, the biggest for the franchise in years. The season-ticket invoices are due to go out in the mail in the next few days, with the price increase for that eighth game duly noted. The home-field advantage is fully there for the taking again. Toronto was cool to -- and maybe too cool for -- the Bills. The warmth of Buffalo's embrace going forward might determine if fans in this city will ever again know the feeling that made Sarama uneasy in 2008, of watching their team play elsewhere -- perhaps, this time, for good.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.