Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Bagging Toronto must end blame game
By Mike Rodak
There's been some subtle finger-pointing taking place in Buffalo over recent years.
The Buffalo Bills operate within one of the NFL's smallest markets. They have struggled to sell out their games at Ralph Wilson Stadium in recent years. Tasked with expanding and developing his team's business, CEO Russ Brandon looked to nearby Toronto -- one of the largest cities on the continent -- as a way to spur ticket sales.
Since 2008, that has meant playing one regular season game per year across the border. That experiment went on hiatus Wednesday when the Bills announced they will remain at Ralph Wilson Stadium for all of their 2014 home games.
It's a move that has drawn almost unanimous support from Bills fans, long since frustrated with the atmosphere of the Rogers Centre and the performance of their team in an essentially neutral venue. Attendance apparently dropped enough last season -- a crushing 34-31 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons -- for the Bills to put aside their business venture.
Fans want all eight home games in Orchard Park. Coaches want it. Players want it. Ultimately, it gives the Bills the best chance to win.
Those wishes have been granted. Now it's time for everyone involved to step up. Center Eric Wood, an outspoken team captain, made that clear Wednesday on Twitter:
When Bills season-ticket holders receive their invoices later this month, they will need to dig deeper into their wallets. Eight home games carry a larger price tag than seven home games, obviously. The Bills have made a commitment to fans -- at least for this season -- that they will stay out of Toronto. Season-ticket holders must now rise to the occasion.
It goes beyond that, though. The key for the Bills is to avoid blackouts. Last December, when he first questioned the future of the Toronto series, Brandon put some pressure on ordinary fans -- those who don't have season tickets -- to buy more tickets.
"We've taken a game out of the market that has essentially taken 70,000 seats out of our market, and we've truly only sold out two of our home games," Brandon told WGR 550. "We've manufactured sellouts in the other four or five."
Fans responded predictably: They're not going to pay to watch a losing team. The Bills have the NFL's longest playoff drought, having not appeared since 1999, while they haven't won a postseason game since 1995.
It's a chicken-or-the-egg argument that will lead the Bills and their fans nowhere. With each passing season the Bills inch closer to a change in ownership. It's possible that a group with local ties takes over the reins, but the likelihood is that an outside group will buy the team.
When that happens, all bets are off. The NFL is a rapidly growing business and owning one of its 32 franchise can be a wildly lucrative venture. But with the league's increased wealth comes a higher cost of stadiums, a problem that lurks around the corner for the Bills and Erie County.
If the Bills and their fans want to remain in Buffalo, the next ownership group will want to see hard numbers and concrete reason for optimism in the market. If the Bills shelving their Toronto game this season results in a revenue squeeze that the team can't overcome with increased ticket sales, it will be a black mark on the Bills' books.
Whether that's the fault of apathetic fans or another "freak" knee injury to EJ Manuel, it won't really matter.
It's time for everyone to step up.