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Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Updated: August 20, 11:44 AM ET
Showdown with Miami in Toronto leaves Bills fans cold

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Toronto Bills
The Bills' $78 million agreement to play eight "home" games in Toronto over the next five years has NFL fans in Canada cheering. Bills fans in Western New York are leery.
Wedged between the Great Lakes of Erie and Ontario (not to mention Canada), Buffalo, N.Y., averages nearly 100 inches of snow each year.

This constitutes a stout home advantage for the Buffalo Bills, especially when the opponent is a hothouse flower like the Miami Dolphins -- except when the home game is being played in Toronto, in the cozy, climate-controlled Rogers Centre.

Yes, you read right. On Sunday at 4:05 p.m. ET, the 6-6 Bills line up against the Dolphins in the first NFL regular-season game ever played in Canada. The temperature in Buffalo is expected to be in the 20s with a 40 percent chance of snow, but with the roof closed in Toronto it will be a toasty 72 degrees at kickoff. The Bills are fighting for their playoff lives, but the only time the Dolphins will feel the chill is when they walk a few feet from their hotel to the bus.

This prompted Andrew Petrinec, a 26-year-old architect and first-year Bills season-ticket holder, to protest. He and fellow season-ticket holder Al Keohane created a petition on behalf of FACeD (Fans Against Closed Domes) that asks Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. and members of the Rogers Group to play the game with the roof open.

"We, western New York Buffalo Bills fans, know that we are losing a home game," the petition concludes, "but it would be even worse if we lost the advantage."

The response? No chance. The field isn't equipped with a viable drainage system, according to a Rogers Communications Inc. spokesman, who added that the roof is locked down after the Blue Jays end their season.

What difference could that make? The Dolphins have lost seven of nine games at Buffalo after Dec. 1, including playoff games after the 1990 and 1995 seasons. This time, however, they will not be subjected to the blustery seasonal conditions at Ralph Wilson Stadium in suburban Orchard Park, N.Y.

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The online petition, which has generated more than 1,400 signatures, has generated enormous attention, from numerous newspaper and television reports to a featured radio interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

"The response, it's been shocking," Petrinec said. "I think the reason it's so appealing is that it's fans fighting the giant, corporate NFL. Maybe this gives the fans a little bit more of a voice."

Beyond that 50-degree gift to the Dolphins, there is a larger fear.

"We don't want to lose our team to Toronto," Petrinec said.

Back in October, a Forbes Magazine article listed the Buffalo Bills as the third-likeliest major sports franchise to move, behind the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays. What would legendary Indian scout, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the team's namesake, think of that?

Buffalo Bills
The Bills will miss the snowy conditions of a typical December home game.

Buffalo fans have been nervous since the Bills signed an offseason deal worth $78 million with Rogers Communications that will take the Bills to Toronto for eight games, three of them preseason contests, over a span of five years. There were rumors that the deal included a right-of-first-refusal clause when the team is sold, but that hasn't been confirmed.

The Bills say it's just business, an attempt to extend the fan base to the other side of Lake Ontario. Wilson has maintained that he will keep the team where it is as long as he is alive, but he is 90 years old and some Bills fans believe it could become a permanent arrangement when the team is ultimately sold to the highest bidder.

Linda Bogdan, a Bills vice president and assistant director of college and pro scouting, is also Wilson's daughter. Still, she has said she has no interest in running the team and the estate taxes that would come with ownership. Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback who took the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s, reportedly is putting together an ownership group. But with the average NFL franchise worth close to $1 billion, can Kelly find that kind of cash?

There's a lot to like about Buffalo. The Anchor Bar on Main Street advertises itself as the inventor of Buffalo wings, circa 1964. General Mills is still pumping out tons of Cheerios, Wheaties and Gold Medal Flour. The late, great Tim Russert called Buffalo his home.

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The downside from a business standpoint is that Buffalo's market of 1.1 million people is No. 46 in the country. The Bills sold more than 56,000 season tickets this year, the most since the glory days of the early 1990s, but they remain the cheapest ticket in the NFL. Despite a 10 percent increase over last year, the Bills' average ticket price is $51.24, according to a report by Team Marketing Report. The New England Patriots, by contrast, have an average ticket of $117.84.

This is the bleak economic backdrop driving a possible move from Buffalo. Fort Erie, Canada looms just a mile away across the Peace Bridge; Toronto, with its population base of more than 5 million, is only about 90-mile drive from Buffalo. Unofficial estimates place the number of Canadian season-ticket holders as high as 15,000.

Rogers Communications was the creation of Ted Rogers, who as a law student built his holdings in an FM radio station into a wireless and cable empire that employs 24,000 and is worth an estimated $18 billion. Rogers Communications already owns the Blue Jays, the Rogers Centre and the Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. The death of Rogers, at 75, on Tuesday -- five days before the first NFL regular-season game was to be played in his building -- might not have a big impact on a potential move by the Bills.

Phil Lind, the Rogers vice chairman and a huge Cleveland Browns fan, is said to be the driving force behind the push for the NFL. Rogers has the diversity and the cash flow to spend the $1 billion it would take to buy the franchise. Certainly, the $78 million U.S. price tag to effectively lease those eight games is a powerful sign of interest.

Attendance for the Aug. 14 exhibition game between the Bills and Steelers in Toronto was announced as 48,434 (capacity is 54,000), but the average ticket price reportedly was $181 and no more than 33,000 tickets were sold at face value. There reportedly are about 2,000 tickets still available for Sunday's game.

When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell travels around the country, he often talks about the passion of the Bills' fans. Goodell was born in Jamestown, N.Y.

"I think that helps out the Bills' situation," Petrinec said. "But once Ralph Wilson no longer owns the team, I believe [moving] is a pretty good possibility."

Last month, Goodell addressed a Quarterback Club luncheon gathering in Buffalo.

"It's a franchise we're very proud of," Goodell said.

Will the Bills stay in Buffalo?

"It's going to depend on your passion for this team," he said.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com