TORONTO (Reuters) - In the 1970s the Canadian government barred the door to American football expansion into the Great White North, introducing legislation to block its move across the world’s longest undefended border.
The National Football League (NFL) was back knocking on its northern neighbor’s door last week, however, when the Buffalo Bills took the first step towards what many believe will be a permanent move to Toronto, confirming details of an eight-game series to be played in the Canadian city starting next season.
The plan, which includes five regular-season games and three pre-season contests spread out over the next five years, was announced during the Super Bowl festivities in Phoenix but officially unveiled last week during a news conference at the Rogers Centre that will be the Bills’ new part-time home.
Bills owner Ralph Wilson and Canadian billionaire Ted Rogers, owner of the Rogers Centre and Major League Baseball (MLB) side Toronto Blue Jays, refused to be drawn into speculation over long-term plans for the Buffalo franchise.
Neither would they deny the possibility of an NFL franchise settling in Canada.
Wilson said Buffalo was no longer capable of supporting the team alone and that the foray into Toronto was necessary to ensure the franchise’s survival.
As Buffalo watches its population decline and unemployment rise, just 160 km away on the other side of the Peace Bridge lies Toronto, North America’s fifth largest sports market and Canada’s financial hub with its untapped potential corporate sponsors all made more attractive by the soaring Canadian dollar.
“The town of Buffalo, and it’s no secret, is diminishing in size,” Wilson told reporters. “Buffalo is dwindling in population, in jobs. People don’t have jobs, they move out.
“To keep the team there, a number of years ago, we decided we had to regionalize because the team could not be maintained in Buffalo.
“If we were going to stay we had to increase our visibility...expand our brand.
“We’ve overturned all the rocks in Western New York so we decided to look this way, to the north.
“I can’t speculate what’s going to happen in the future but don’t worry about it right now,” added the 89-year-old Bills owner.
Bills fans feel betrayed and the dread on the other side of the border is no less palpable.
Cosmopolitan Toronto has long coveted an NFL franchise to stand alongside the city’s National Hockey League (NHL), National Basketball Association (NBA) and MLB teams.
The thought of an NFL team in Toronto is not, however, as warmly welcomed by the rest of Canada, which fears the arrival of the Bills could herald the death knell for the venerable Canadian Football League (CFL).
Rather than be crushed by the NFL behemoth, the Toronto Argonauts and CFL commissioner Mark Cohon have attempted to forge a partnership that will link the two leagues and see Argo season ticket holders get first bite at Bills tickets.
The rest of the CFL, however, balked at signing into any deal.
“As far as the CFL, it is very important to us,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. “We have always had a very strong relationship with them. I believe very much that their success is important.
“I have spoken to Mark Cohon...many times and I think he is comfortable with the arrangements being made around these games to help the CFL.”
Although the CFL has struggled for survival at different periods throughout its history, its core group of supporters remain fiercely loyal. Recently the league has enjoyed a spike in popularity.
During the 1970s, with separation forces gaining strength, the CFL was viewed as a unifying force for the bilingual country and when the World Football League attempted to set up shop in Toronto in 1974 the Liberal government stepped forward with legislation to block the move.
The CFL, however, cannot count on government intervention again, leaving its survival hinging on negotiations.
“I think it is a dream come true for the city, the province,” said Rogers. “I think this is a win, win, win for everybody. I think it is going to help Toronto.
“The CFL is stronger than people think and our aim is to be a good partner with them.
“I think north of the border there is a feeling of excitement and enthusiasm wherever I go.
“The press would like to dream up that there are all sorts of people worried about it, they’re not sleeping well at night because you guys (the NFL) are coming here. I think that is a lot of exaggerated hooey.”
Admittance into the NFL lodge does not come cheap, however.
Ticket prices have not yet been confirmed. Officials said some would cost less than $100 but most are expected to be double that and all eight games over the next five years must be purchased together.
“We’re going to charge high rates and we’re going to have all the seats sold,” said Rogers.
Editing by Clare Fallon