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Wilson declines to speculate on Bills future in Buffalo

TORONTO -- Ralph Wilson is convinced Toronto is ready to support an NFL franchise. The Buffalo Bills owner wouldn't say whether that team might one day be his.

Wilson steered clear from discussing whether the Bills would ever relocate north of the border. "Don't worry right now," was the best answer he could provide at a news conference Wednesday announcing the Bills would begin playing an annual regular-season game in Toronto beginning this season through 2012.

Based on what Wilson saw during a half-hour drive from the airport to a downtown hotel, he was convinced Canada's financial capital and North America's fifth largest sports market was ready for the NFL.

"I can answer that in the affirmative," Wilson said. "It reminds me of my trip to Dallas a few months ago. They're building in Dallas, Texas, everywhere, cranes, brand-new structures. And I see the same thing here in Toronto."

It was certainly a different view than what he usually sees in economically challenged Buffalo

"It's no secret, Buffalo is diminishing in size," Wilson said.

Asked then to assure Bills fans he's committed to keeping the team in Buffalo, the 89-year-old declined to guess.

"Hey, I can't speculate what's going to happen in the future," Wilson said. "But don't worry. Don't worry right now. Does that answer your questions?"

Toronto will formally land on the NFL map later this year, when the Bills become the league's first franchise to play an annual regular season game outside the United States. The deal also includes the Bills playing three preseason games -- one every other year, starting this year -- in Toronto.

Dates have yet to be announced.

The games would be played at the downtown Rogers Centre, a domed stadium with a retractable roof and home of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Wilson stressed the team's decision to expand its market to Toronto was one out of necessity and considered a chance for the small-market franchise to generate much-needed additional revenue.

"We've overturned all the rocks in western New York," Wilson said. "We've got to do something so we looked this way to the north and we came up with some great partners."

Those partners are Blue Jays owner Ted Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors.

The two have formed a partnership to pursue an NFL franchise. The deal with the Bills is considered their first concrete step toward achieving that goal, and an opportunity to showcase Toronto's potential to the league.

The deal with the Bills wouldn't preclude Rogers and Tanenbaum from making bids to buy and relocate other NFL franchises if they go up for sale.

Rogers said he is focused on working with the Bills over the next five years, and described speculation of the franchise relocating to Toronto as "exaggerated hooey."

"We didn't say we weren't interested, and we didn't say that we were," Rogers said. "This is good for everybody."

The next step is completing the financial terms of the deal to determine how much the Bills will be compensated for leasing the eight games to Rogers and Tanenbaum. Under the agreement, the Bills will provide their team, the NFL will provide an opponent, while Rogers Centre will be responsible for selling tickets, concessions and promoting the event.

Without going into detail, Rogers made no secret that ticket prices will be expensive.

"We're going to charge high rates and we're going to have all the seats sold," Rogers said.

When it was noted that some tickets would be available for under $100, Rogers held up two fingers and said, "Two," drawing a laugh from the crowd.

Reports have speculated that tickets would be sold for an average $250 per seat. Bills tickets at Ralph Wilson Stadium, by comparison, average about $46.

The Bills first approached Rogers and Tanenbaum last summer about the possibility of playing games in Toronto.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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