Niagara Gazette

October 31, 2011

Winning effort wins over Toronto crowd

COMMENTARY

By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette

TORONTO — The notion that the Bills couldn't create a homefield advantage for themselves up here was discarded like a lineman trying to block Marcel Dareus one-on-one. Sunday's 23-0 win over the Washington Redskins did more than put the Bills back in the forefront of the playoff picture. It energized a fan base thirsting for a real NFL experience.

There's a reason it's called "winning over the crowd." Lovable losers don't make for good touring acts. The Bills hadn't been embraced by Toronto football fans the past few years because they were no fun to root for, a boring, beaten team only blind loyalists could stand behind.

While Rogers Centre was nothing like The Ralph on Sunday, it rocked like an NFL stadium is supposed to for the first time since the Bills Toronto Series began. Before kickoff, you could pick out plenty of Redskins fans in the crowd. But they disappeared during the game, drowned out by cheers, hidden by throngs of people waving Bills towels. It got loud early and often, and the Bills fed off that enthusiasm.

"This was definitely the most exciting crowd we've had since we've played up here," said safety George Wilson, an outspoken critic of the Toronto atmosphere earlier in the week.

"The crowd was really into it and it helped us," said coach Chan Gailey, whose only complaint was that the fans started the wave when the Bills had a third-and-1 late.

Much has been made about how the Bills had to sacrifice a home game for a neutral-site environment in previous Toronto excursions. But they created that situation for themselves by being the less compelling team to root for. Nobody likes to identify with a loser, if they can help it.

The sorry state of the Bills up until this season shortchanged the Toronto fans and the Rogers executives who pay about $14 million annually for these games. When 50,000 people come together to cheer for a common cause, it's a memorable experience. Sitting in among an ambivalent, bipartisan crowd watching an average team beat a bad one is drudgery. That's why the International Bowl failed here.

Of course, win or lose, its the Bills fans back home who are getting shortchanged. No other NFL city has to settle for seven games. And every trip to Toronto inflames fears that the big city across the border is trying to bogey in on our Bills. Four years in, it's time to stop feeling sorry for ourselves, however. These games are here to stay. Be careful about wishing them to go away.

While stumping in Orchard Park earlier this month, commissioner Roger Goodell emphasized that the NFL wants to see the Bills-Toronto series succeed. The league likes the influx of Canadian dollars, but also buys into the belief that the Bills are ensuring their long-term success in a small market with an occasional weekend getaway to the fourth largest media market in North America. "To us, it's one region," Goodell said, before acknowledging, "I know Western New York doesn't think of it that way."

Think big picture. If Bills games in Toronto don't prove to be viable in the long run, an NFL franchise in Western New York may not be viable in the long run. There's a danger if things go the other way, too. More than anything, Toronto fans want their own team. If that happens, it will siphon away the Southern Ontario fans that reportedly make up 15 percent of the Bills ticket base, not to mention the Canadian businesses the team seeks out as sponsors.

We'll be better off when we accept the Toronto Series as a necessary part of the Bills business. Then we can start brainstorming ways to enhance it. Bills players have been begging fans to travel from Buffalo for the game, to encourage a raucous environment in a way student cheering sections do. Most season ticket-holders balk at paying a premium to watch a game in an inferior setting (and hope their boycott dooms the deal). But what if the team encouraged their attendance by offering fan bus excursions? That's become a Canadian cottage industry, not to mention a bigger reason for the Bills popularity in Southern Ontario than games in Toronto. How about the NFL works with the NHL to get a Sabres-Leafs game on the Saturday night before the Bills game?

The Bills should be supporting anything that promotes the megatropolis concept and strengthens Buffalo's connection to Toronto — high-speed rail transportation, Raptors preseason games in Buffalo, Raptors games on TV in Buffalo, affiliation between the Bisons and the Blue Jays, a Bills bar in downtown Toronto.

The people of Toronto can do their part by doing exactly what they did Sunday: cheer their heads off for the Bills and make the players feel at home. No matter what NFL team they would prefer to see live, they need to know that the Bills are the one that will keep coming back.

The Bills in Toronto is an arranged marriage of convenience, to be sure. It's easy to see the flaws in this union. It would be more productive to see the promise.

Contact sports editor Jonah Bronstein at jonah.bronstein@niagara-gazette.com.