Sun Nov 07 08:34pm EST
Much like the current state of the NHL, the National Football League's annual incursion into the Great White North has become something of a Rorschach test for the state of football in Canada. How you view it says perhaps more about yourself than it does about what's really there.
Those who would like to see an NFL franchise in Toronto some day point to decent attendance numbers such as the 50,746 who took in today's 22-19 Chicago Bears victory (partly thanks to the two-point conversion Matt Forte and Earl Bennett are shown celebrating above) over the Buffalo Bills (and the Argonauts' own numbers, which are lacklustre by comparison) as a sign that the city's ready to embrace four-down football on a more permanent basis. Those who hate the idea of the NFL in Canada and see it as a threat to the CFL and the Canadian game will note that the game again wasn't a sellout (indeed, all five games to date have failed to sell out), had many tickets given away and featured substantially limited support for the "home" Bills. The first group will argue that the Bills moving to Toronto is inevitable and drawing ever-closer, while the second will say that that will never happen. As is the case with many polarizing issues, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle; Yahoo!'s Nicholas J. Cotsonika was on the scene for this one, and he has a terrific article exploring what the game's atmosphere was really like up close. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't completely fall into what either camp would claim.
The Bills' games in Canada are complicated enough to defy simple black-and-white classification, so further examination of the surrounding issues is required. Scott Stinson had an excellent piece exploring the context of these games in yesterday's National Post, and he gets at the crucial arguments on both sides. On the pro-NFL in Toronto side, he makes the very valid point that the Bills are one of the league's most troubled franchises financially, especially with owner Ralph Wilson likely nearing the end of his life. If Wilson chooses to sell the franchise or passes away, it will be very difficult to keep the Bills in Western New York. They have fans and they have a stadium, but they don't generate a ton of revenue and they don't have a strong corporate base to draw upon. There's a good chance they could move cities down the road, and Toronto's certainly one of the most interesting options out there for their relocation.
Toronto could be advantageous to the NFL for a number of reasons. For one, it has a huge metropolitan area with a 2006 census population of 5.6 million. For another, it's the corporate headquarters for most Canadian companies. In an era where commercial sponsorship dollars are becoming more and more essential to professional franchises' bottom lines, that's crucially important. There's also a well-heeled group (Rogers Communications) that's very interested in bringing the NFL to town and put together this series of Bills' games to demonstrate that; the NFL doesn't tend to allow majority corporate ownership at the moment, but that could change, or Rogers could prop up one of their executives as a majority owner. Toronto also allows the NFL to go international with less hassle than there would be in expanding to any other country. Finally, Toronto's proximity to Buffalo and upstate New York would allow the NFL to perhaps avert some of the bad publicity that tends to be associated with franchise moves, especially if they only gradually expanded the number of games north of the border; that might allow them to market the change as a way to keep the Bills in the area despite the economic factors.
There are at least as many things working against Toronto as a full-time NFL city, though. The Bills in Toronto series hasn't completely flopped, but it certainly hasn't been an overwhelming slam dunk. That doesn't mean that people in Toronto don't care for the NFL (in fact, I'd venture that many of the city's NFL fans realize just how bad the matchups in Toronto have tended to be and haven't been particularly interested in paying a fair bit of cash to watch them), but it also isn't the unconditional support the NFL would like to see in a potential relocation destination. By contrast, the NFL's games in London have drawn over 81,000 each year despite also featuring abhorrent matchups annually, including this year's Broncos-49ers game. London obviously poses its own set of challenges (time zone, travel, etc), as do other relocation possibilities like Los Angeles, but it's certainly demonstrated more from a fan/corporate/attendance point of view than Toronto has to date.
The presence and popularity of the CFL also works against having a full-time NFL franchise in Toronto. The CFL's in a pretty strong place right now, with solid corporate sponsorship and tremendous television ratings. There are a lot of CFL fans who would be adamantly opposed to an NFL team setting up shop in Toronto, and for good reason; while a once-a-year incursion doesn't do much to the CFL or the Argonauts, it would be awfully difficult for the Argonauts to compete with a full-time NFL franchise for fan and corporate dollars. They're far from the league's model franchise financially at the moment, and things would likely get worse if they had to go head-to-head with the NFL.
Even though the Argonauts don't bring in the revenue of other CFL teams, the league absolutely needs them. Toronto is Canada's media and corporate hub, and without a presence there, the CFL turns into a regional league instead of a national one. CFL fans recognize this, and there's already been substantial high-level opposition (including a bill by Senator Larry Campbell that tried to stop the Bills' regular-season games north of the border) to the idea of an expanded NFL presence in Canada. You can bet there would be much more opposition at both the high levels and the grassroots if the Bills tried to play half of their home games in Canada or move to Toronto full-time. It's quite possible the NFL could prevail despite that, but that may not be a fight that league wants to get into, especially considering that there are more attractive candidates for relocation that don't come with as many potential legislative headaches.
In any case, we're a long way from a full-time NFL team in Toronto, and these games don't necessarily have to be viewed as an inevitable step towards that. Extremists on both sides will try to frame the debate that way, and that isn't entirely accurate. The NFL-in-Toronto debate has often become unnecessarily polarizing, as has the debate around football in general. There are way too many people who try to prove their love for the CFL by complaining about the NFL and criticizing those who talk about it, and there are also plenty on the other side who spend all their time bashing the CFL and praising the NFL. The vast majority of the time, the leagues aren't even in competition, and they both bring plenty of unique elements to the table; there are many of us who enjoy both brands of football and don't see it as an either/or debate. The current setup of one regular-season NFL game in Toronto per year doesn't really threaten the CFL, and it doesn't necessarily move us any closer to a full-time team north of the border. If a full relocation to Toronto comes into play, it might be appropriate to firmly draw NFL-CFL battle lines. Until then, it's quite possible to enjoy the best of both worlds.