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Monday, July 28, 2008
Commish upbeat about Bills, other small-market teams

Associated Press

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Whether it was posing for pictures taken by fans lined along a fence at Buffalo Bills training camp or discussing the franchise's long-term future, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was all smiles Monday.

Goodell met with franchise owner Ralph Wilson and Sen. Charles Schumer, and learned of the tremendous rise in season-ticket sales and the increased interest and revenue the team's generating as it prepares to play games annually in Toronto.

"The nature of the conversation was to find out how the Bills were doing. Fortunately, that's the good news," Goodell said. "The Bills, particularly in their effort here to regionalize the team further to southern Ontario and Toronto has been a very big success. And I think that's something that we're all proud of, the fact that we can now make the team stronger here."

Schumer said he's seen the Bills make progress in the last year.

"This was a good and happy meeting because things are looking up," Schumer said. "I feel a lot better this year than I did last year at this time, and so does Ralph Wilson, about the future of the Bills in Buffalo."

The comments mark a significant turnaround in the two years since Wilson first raised concerns about the long-term viability of the Bills and other small-market NFL teams as a result of the NFL's new labor deal, which he voted against in 2006.

Wilson spoke only briefly during the press conference Monday, but his mood was notably upbeat. He jokingly introduced Goodell as "the boss of everybody," and later referred to Schumer as "a great guy who's done an awful lot for the Bills."

Wilson had good reason to be happy.

The Bills have sold 54,200 season tickets this year, the most since 1992 when they sold a record 57,132. The team has also sold out all but one of its regular-season home games, with only a limited number of tickets available for Buffalo's game against New England on Dec. 28.

That's a big increase from two years ago, when the Bills failed to sell out four of their eight home games.

And then there's an even bigger windfall: The $78 million the team is guaranteed to receive from playing five regular-season and three preseason games in Toronto starting this year and running through 2012. That's more than double the Bills' calculated 2006 operating income.

The move to expand their market north to Toronto makes the Bills the NFL's first team to play annual regular-season games outside the United States. And it has allowed the franchise to tap into Canada's financial capital and North America's fifth-largest market, with a regional population of about 5 million.

"I think it's been very successful in making the Bills stronger in western New York, which is our effort here," Goodell said. "It's bringing more people down from Toronto. They're spending more money in western New York."

Goodell's visit was part of an annual series of trips he makes each preseason, and his first to Bills training camp. The visit coincided with an opening in Schumer's schedule, so both could meet with Wilson.

Schumer allayed fears that the Bills playing in Toronto was the first step to the franchise relocation. But he was unable to provide any assurances about what would happen to the Bills after Wilson dies. Wilson, who turns 90 in October, has previously said his family isn't interested in taking over the franchise, which would potentially put the team on the open market.

Schumer declined to say whether a succession plan that included keeping the Bills in Buffalo was discussed during the meeting.

"To talk about that subject in public would be counterproductive to keeping the Bills in Buffalo, so I'm not going to do it," Schumer said.