By Jonah Bronstein
Greater Niagara Newspapers
Folks up here like having the NFL in their lives; like being associated with the biggest pro sports league in the world; like the prospect of one day having a team to call their own and filling out the foursome that only the biggest cities in the states can claim.
Buffalo is in love with the Bills. Still smitten after a quarter century of heartbreak.
Like and love. There is no comparison.
Last time I ventured up to Rogers Centre for a football game was January, 2009. Another team that Buffalo loves — less passionately, yes, but genuinely — rewarded its fans for their emotional investment by playing in a bowl game for the first time ever. The building was barely two-thirds full, yet felt like it was about to burst when the UB Bulls jumped out to an early lead.
That’s what happens when a team plays in front of an adoring fanbase.
The atmosphere was certainly different Thursday night. Even in the first quarter, when the “home team” exploded for three long touchdowns and fireworks went off, the crowd response was ... eh.
It sure was odd watching people look confused and annoyed when the “Shout” song is blaring. Even odder was that they also kept playing Jason Mraz’s little diddy, “I’m Yours,” which to the locals, must have sounded like a desperate plea for love.
Granted, it was a preseason game, which ranks only slightly above OTA on the excitement scale. By all accounts, though, the buzz has been tepid at best for the two regular season contests that have been played here, and interest in the remaining games is waning.
There appeared to be far more fans wearing Colts jerseys than Bills jerseys.
Again, Toronto likes having the NFL in town. Beyond a bit of neighborly respect, it could care less about the Bills.
Steve Muir lives in Whitby, Ont., about an hour outside the city, and roots hard for the Tennessee Titans. Every Sunday in the fall, Muir, 23, sets up four HD TVs in his living room (he works at an electronics store) and indulges in the NFL Sunday Ticket. He watches the Titans play, while his girlfriend checks out the Vikings. Friends come by to watch their favorite teams — the Colts, the Jets, the Dolphins, the Lions (no, really).
Nobody in the group is a Bills fan.
“There are Bills fans in the area, but a lot of them are older,” Muir says. “I know a lot of 35 and up Bills fans that identify with the older teams, the O.J. teams, the Jim Kelly teams. But because there was no Toronto allegiance until three years ago, people like myself have found other teams they identify with.”
Muir believes Toronto fans would love to have their own team, but after the honeymoon phase, wouldn’t support one unconditionally. To be a big draw, an NFL franchise would have to be a consistent winner, with marquee names performing in a state-of-the-art stadium.
In other words, the people won’t pay the Bills for a decade of losing seasons.
“Toronto is a little more ‘show me’, a little more picky about how they spend their entertainment dollar,” says former Niagara basketball coach Jack Armstrong, a Bills season ticket holder who hosted a talk radio show in Toronto for the past two years.
“Look at what’s happened with the Maple Leafs. Look at the Blue Jays, a nice story this year, and at the bottom in attendance,” Armstrong says. “In Buffalo, we get behind the teams and we really care. Its a big deal. Its part of your life. Its a sacred relationship.”
Armstrong and Muir are adamant that Rogers Centre is an inferior place to watch a football game, especially when you consider that tailgating outside the stadium is logistically impossible and generally not accepted.
“At Blue Jays games, you show up for the start of the game, and you leave at the end,” Muir says. “They discourage people from getting up and clapping when there’s two strikes, from excessive drinking, from having a good time. I understand that to an extent. But that doesn’t make you want to go to a game. It makes you want to sit home and watch on television. ... I don’t know if the city would allow the type of atmosphere that you really should have at an NFL game.”
“The big thing I find from having worked in Toronto for 12 years is that folks love coming to Orchard Park,” Armstrong says. “Overwhelmingly, they enjoy that more than going to a game at the Rogers Centre. They feel like they are truly experiencing what the NFL is about.”
The Bills will play four more games over the next three seasons in Toronto. After that, the $78 million agreement expires. According to The Associated Press, there have been no talks yet about an extension.
“The longer they continue this one or two game thing, the lesser the draw will be,” Muir says. “Eventually, the Bills are going to need to decide. Are they looking to get in a bigger market and make more money, or stay in Buffalo and be that hometown team?”
I’m sure the NFL would like to continue courting Canadian currency. If the city wants more than a weeklong visit from the Bills, then the league will have to investigate whether it wants to move a team here permanently. The league would have to find deep-pocketed owners it likes, build a stadium it likes, and get the U.S. television partners to like the idea (a significant hurdle, I think).
The question for Bills fans — what’s love got to do with it?
Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2258, or email@example.com.