Toronto Flop? Preseason game fails to deliver

The Bills' Toronto Series opener wasn't nearly as successful as planners expected.

Buffalo's 24-21 exhibition victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday, the first of eight over the next five years to be played in Toronto, drew a mixed bag of reviews and generated a lot of emotions on both sides of the border.

From a football standpoint, one thing is clear, however. The Bills have to find a way to generate more fan support at the Rogers Centre, otherwise the home-field advantage they've already compromised will be non-existent when they face the Miami Dolphins in a regular-season game in Toronto on Dec. 7.

Facing the warm-weather Dolphins in a dome rather than in the cold and snow of Ralph Wilson Stadium is sure to be a hot topic in a game that could have a major impact on Buffalo's playoff hopes.

But now it's clear they have a lot of work to do when it comes to generating noise, the single-most important advantage of playing at home for NFL teams when the other team has the football.

The Steelers had just as much and perhaps a tad more fans in their corner (with a third just football fans with no allegiances) when they played the Bills. That lent credence to the belief that while Toronto has a lot of NFL fans, they are not necessarily fans of the Bills.

"Coming out into the stadium, I saw a lot of Pittsburgh jerseys, fans calling Troy Polamalu's name. That's OK. It's good for football," Bills strong safety Donte Whitner said of his Pittsburgh counterpart.

"But when we come back here in December, we want it to be lopsided for us, 99.9 percent Bills fans. I believe this can be our home for one game, and it's something we have to do. We have to regionalize the Bills and good things can come of that, keeping the Bills in Buffalo for fans that deserve their team in Buffalo."

The Bills have entered into a five-year partnership with Rogers Communications to bring their games (five in the regular season) to the Toronto market, a deal that infused Buffalo with $78 million in cash.

Having shelled out an average of nearly $10 million U.S. per game, the Rogers group in turn is charging what at best can be described as exorbitant ticket prices to try and recoup their investment while showing the NFL Toronto deserves a franchise, perhaps when Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who turns 90 this fall, is deceased and the team goes up for sale to the highest bidder.

Ticket window prices for this first preseason game cost $105 on the low end and $575 on the high end with most priced in the $200 range.

Those prices, the fact it was preseason football, the height of vacation season and the Olympics are going on, contributed to the fact that there were nearly 5,000 empty seats in the 53,000-seat facility that normally hosts Toronto Argonauts games in the Canadian Football League.

Reports surfaced that in order to ensure a good crowd, the Rogers group handed out scores of freebies, perhaps has many as 17,000. The Toronto Sun reported Rogers lost between $4 million and $5 million on the game.

"They couldn't sell the tickets and tried to paper the room to not embarrass themselves and save face to the NFL," a Rogers source told the paper.

Outside, scalpers were getting $10 for tickets with a face value of $185.

A Rogers spokesman said the goal of the Bills in the Toronto series isn't to make money, but to give back to the city. Many tickets were given out to United Way partners and Canadian military personnel. Vice president Phil Lind boldly predicted that the Dolphins-Bills game -- the first regular-season game ever scheduled in Canada -- would generate a legitimate full house.

"I guarantee there will not be an empty seat for that game," he told the Sun. "And the (full house) will not be a result of free tickets, either."

That's good news, but how many fans will be cheering for the Bills?

"This can be our home place, it definitely can be," Whitner said confidently. "The fans (Thursday) were quiet and that's to be expected with the first NFL game with us involved here. We only really played one quarter with the starters. Once we get here in the thick of a playoff race, the Miami Dolphins coming in, it's a regular-season game ... I got to believe the fans will be a lot louder and rowdier. I do think coming away with a win in front of these fans was a very good thing."

The Bills will have an advantage of knowing the logistics of playing in Canada and coach Dick Jauron was happy his team and staff got in a dress rehearsal.

"I feel this is our home game," he said. "We've been around and around about the circumstances that bring us here and it's not my area. But I understand it and I'm certainly behind it for our organization and for our fans in Western New York to keep us viable and competitive in the National Football League."

Meanwhile, the backlash of the NFL moving into the Canadian market is growing.

CFL leaders are strongly voicing their concerns and a Toronto Globe and Mail editorial urged Toronto businessmen and political leaders to work with the Argos owners to ensure the viability of the CFL, a rare "national institution" that bonds the country.

That kind of groundswell could keep the Bills at bay, something that would please Bills fans in Buffalo and also in Toronto who don't want to pay $500 to see the same product they can see in Orchard Park for $50.

"This is a rip-off for the fans with the prices they are charging, especially for preseason," Jeff Rubinoff, 57, a fan from Richmond Hills, Ontario, told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "And I feel sorry for the fans in Buffalo. It's their team and even if they don't move, it's creating anxiety for everyone."

Fans of the Argos made their feelings known with a small but enthusiastic group picketing outside the Rogers Centre. They wore T-shirts with the Bills logo with a slash drawn through it and chanted "The Bills belong in Buffalo; the Bills belong in Buffalo." Said organizer Sterling Halliday, a 19-year-old college student: "It's not anti-Bills, it's pro CFL. We want to keep the NFL in Buffalo and out of Canada."

CAMP CALENDAR: Workouts at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., end on Wednesday. The team relocates 90 miles west to its regular facilities in Orchard Park for the duration of the preseason.

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