Bills owner addresses NFL owners about annual game in Toronto
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Bills owner Ralph Wilson made his case Tuesday for Buffalo to play an annual regular-season home game in Toronto, and now it's up to NFL owners to determine whether there's potential north of the border.
"The discussion was constructive and encouraging," Wilson said in a statement released by the team following the league's fall meetings in Philadelphia. "When the matter is finalized, it will be referred to commissioner [Roger] Goodell for his announcement."
The proposal was discussed at length and received what Goodell said was general approval, although no vote was taken.
The Bills' proposal requires two-thirds majority approval from the league's 32 teams, with a vote expected to come within the next two months.
The plan is for the Bills to annually play one regular-season and one preseason game in Toronto starting in 2008 and lasting through 2012, which is the duration of the franchise's lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Bills' proposal is the franchise's most ambitious bid to secure its long-term future in Buffalo, by tapping into the vast corporate base of Canada's largest city and financial capital.
Toronto is a 90-mile drive from Buffalo and is counted as part of the Bills home territory.
The Bills attract an average of 15,000 Canadian fans to their home games, but have had little success establishing marketing deals and selling luxury suites with companies north of the border.
Playing annual games in Toronto's downtown Rogers Centre would give the franchise a more immediate presence in a region that has a population of about 4.6 million. The Bills are forced to seek a new frontier after having reached their revenue-generating limits in a rust-belt western New York region with a perennially struggling economy.
Despite Wilson's vows that he has no intention of selling or relocating the Bills, the franchise's future in Buffalo is cloudy. Wilson, who turned 89 last week, has no plans to keep the team in his family once he dies, leaving the door open for a new owner to move the team.
Erie County executive Joel Giambra described the Bills' proposed link with Toronto the best chance of securing the franchise's long-term future in Buffalo.
"It's my belief that after the Wilson era, it's going to be a real challenge to keep this team in this community," Giambra said. "That challenge is strengthened by this experiment in Canada. ... If the Bills are successful with that, then I think the probability of keeping the team after the Wilson era goes up."
The proposal, if passed, would change the NFL's landscape, going beyond the league's recent bid to play games outside of the United States, which begins Sunday when Miami and the New York Giants play at London's Wembley Stadium in the first NFL regular-season game outside North America.
While the Packers previously split home games between Green Bay and Milwaukee, and the Chicago Bears played their 2002 home games at Champaign, Ill., because of renovations to Soldier Field, the Bills would be the first NFL team to play at least one annual home game on international soil.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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