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Friday, February 1, 2008
Bills to play annual regular-season game in Toronto starting next season

Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The NFL map will include Canada now that the Buffalo Bills will play an annual regular-season game in Toronto starting this year.

Citing the "tremendous amount of interest" the Bills generate across neighboring southern Ontario, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Friday that the team will play a regular-season game in Toronto in each of the next five seasons.

The plan also includes three Bills preseason games -- one every other year starting this season -- in Toronto during that stretch.

The NFL has played games outside the United States, most recently when Miami faced the New York Giants in London in October. But the Bills will be the league's first team to do it annually.

In his pre-Super Bowl address to reporters, Goodell said the Bills' plan, first presented to league owners in October, "was done thoughtfully to help regionalize the team even more broadly.

Goodell sidestepped questions regarding the NFL's interest in basing a team in Toronto.

"That's not our focus right now," Goodell said in Phoenix.

But he didn't rule out the possibility of playing more games in Toronto.

"We'll never take out the idea it could lead to more, but that's not our plan," Goodell said. "This is a deal for five years. We're going to focus on the next five years."

The games will be played at the downtown Rogers Centre, a domed stadium with a retractable roof that's home to baseball's Toronto Blue Jays and the CFL Argonauts.

The Bills' bid is their most ambitious attempt to secure the small-market franchise's long-term future in Buffalo by tapping into Toronto's vast corporate base. Toronto is Canada's financial capital and largest city, with a population of about 4.6 million and located a 90-minute drive from Buffalo.

Bills owner Ralph Wilson said the team's proposal received unanimous approval from NFL owners. He also credited the cooperation of 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 population growth in Toronto, the passion the Canadian fans have shown for the Buffalo Bills and the vision of Ted Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum have made this possible," Wilson said.

Rogers, who also owns the Rogers Centre and is president and CEO of Rogers Communications, has previously teamed with Tanenbaum to lead a group seeking to bring NFL football to Canada.

The date of the game and the Bills' opponent is expected to be announced once the NFL schedule is released in April. The game is expected to be played in December to avoid conflict with the CFL season, which concludes with the Grey Cup championship in late November.

A press conference has been tentatively scheduled for next week in Toronto.

Toronto's FAN 590 radio station has reported that Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats season-ticket holders will have the first opportunity to buy tickets, followed by Bills season-ticket holders. The station also reported that the average ticket price for games will be $250, and buyers would have to buy tickets for all eight games to be played in Toronto through 2012.

That's a significant increase over ticket prices at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which average about $46 each.

"This is like a dream come true," said Phil Lind, vice chairman of Rogers Communications. "Canadians love NFL football, and this series will let Canadians see the games live in Toronto."

The Bills, who count Toronto as part of their territory, attract an average of 15,000 Canadian fans to their home games, but have had little success establishing marketing deals and selling luxury suites to companies north of the border.

The Bills have maintained this is an extension of their bid to regionalize their base.

But fears have been raised that these games mark the first step toward permanent relocation, especially once Wilson dies.

The 89-year-old Wilson doesn't intend to sell or relocate the Bills while he's alive, but does plan to have the team sold to the highest bidder after his death.

In November, Rogers questioned Buffalo's long-term ability to support an NFL franchise, while backing the Bills' bid to play limited games in Toronto.