The five-year deal that saw the Buffalo Bills play NFL games north of the border wrapped up in less-than-stellar style for the "home team" Sunday, with the Seattle Seahawks downing Buffalo 50-17 at Toronto's Rogers Centre. Led by an explosive performance from quarterback Russell Wilson, Seattle put such a beating on the Bills that the biggest storyline coming out of the game was whether the Seahawks' late fake punt was unsportsmanlike. The Bills' players aren't exactly happy with how the game unfolded, and they definitely aren't thrilled that so much of the crowd for a "home" game was very much in favour of the Seahawks. One of the most outspoken has been centre Eric Wood,. On Wednesday, Wood went off on the Toronto series in a weekly segment with Buffalo radio station 97 Rock (transcribed here by The Buffalo News' Tim Graham), saying that the environment made it far too easy for the Seahawks:
"I think that Toronto series has turned into pretty much a joke," Wood said in an interview with DJ Jickster and Chris Klein. "I think they started it hoping that we'd have a lot of fan support in Toronto. We have none.
"I mean, it's a crucial third down for them in the first quarter, and they're running just regular snap count, where I don't care if we have a half-filled Ralph Wilson Stadium, they don't do that."
Wood went on from there, saying the Toronto series killed the Bills' expected home-field edge.
"You're making a team from out west travel, and then you give them the comfort of a dome, and you don't make them play in our stadium," Wood said. "We have no home-field advantage allowed. We travel, too. I just think it's a joke.
"And it's a bad atmosphere for football. I mean, nobody wants to play there. I guess for opposing teams it beats the hell out of going in somebody else's stadium and dealing with a bunch of crowd noise.
"I don't think it's turned out the way we wanted, and I hope we don't renew it. That sucked."
Wood's distaste for the Toronto series is evident, and it's understandable. From the perspective of Bills' players, the Toronto games are entirely a negative. They're knocked out of their typical home-week routine, have to play in an unfamiliar environment, don't have the advantage of harsh weather that they're more used to than opposing teams, and don't have a crowd that's fully on their side. This was never expected to be great for the players, though. What's interesting is that it also really hasn't worked out for the Bills' organization or for Canadian partner Rogers. Sean Fitz-Gerald of The National Post wrote an excellent piece last week in advance of the game, exploring how the series started with such high expectations but generally hasn't delivered on them:
It was supposed to be the beginning of something big, a potential first step down the path to relocation. Toronto was, after decades of searching, inching closer to an NFL franchise.
Instead, after an early misstep (exorbitant ticket prices), a miscalculation (fans in Toronto like teams other than the Bills) and a misfit (those Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999, the NFL’s longest active drought), Toronto seems no closer to landing a team than it did when the agreement began five seasons ago. In some respects, it feels farther away.
As written here in 2010, the threat of NFL expansion to Toronto posed by these games has degraded substantially since the series began, and that's even more the case now. If these games had sold out and created an incredible buzz, then suits in that league's offices may have figured Toronto's a market that needs an NFL team more
than once a year. The reception has been far from overwhelming on the fan side, though, and only 40,770 showed up Sunday, making the game a long ways from a sellout even after you consider that organizers artificially reduced the stadium's capacity to 45,383. Almost as many people (37,098) showed up at the Rogers Centre last month for the Vanier Cup (the Canadian university football championship)! Keep in mind that Sunday's game also carried widespread reports of substantial freebie tickets and scalpers forced to sell tickets below face value, too. Add it all up, and Toronto certainly doesn't seem like the next hot relocation destination for an NFL team (especially when you consider there's nothing close to an NFL-calibre stadium available right now).
Despite all that, though, the Bills and Rogers are reportedly close to a deal for another series. For the Bills, that makes some sense despite their players' distaste for the series and the competitive disadvantage it gives them; if they can fleece Rogers for another massive chunk of change in exchange for a game or two each year, that helps their bottom line, and it's possible that playing in Toronto increases their standing with Canadian fans (somewhat doubtful) and companies (more likely). The Bills maintaining a foothold in Toronto also reduces the likelihood that another team will try and move in there, and it also may help make keeping them in Western New York more sustainable; if they can get substantial dollars from north of the border both from this series and from Canadian fans and companies who make the trip down to Buffalo, that makes their financial situation a lot better.
For Rogers, extending the deal wouldn't appear to make a huge amount of sense. Who wants to shill out tons of money for a series no one really seems to like? Still, sports consultant Marc Ganis made the valid point to Fitz-Gerald that these games also may help boost the Rogers sports media empire, from magazines to TV to the web. If the series is extended, though, it's going to be mostly the suits in the Rogers and Bills organizations that will be happy. Eric Wood certainly won't be.