The Bills won’t play in Toronto in at least 2014, and that may not be great news for the CFL

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The Bills won’t play in Toronto in at least 2014, and that may not be great news for the CFL
The Bills won’t play in Toronto in at least 2014, and that may not be great news for the CFL

The news that the Buffalo Bills won't play in Toronto in 2014 and may axe that series entirely might seem positive from a CFL perspective at first, but it could be more problematic in the long run. Yes, the Bills-in-Toronto series has been reasonably silly for everyone involved, with players and fans frequently complaining about it, and team president Russ Brandon announced in December that it was being re-evaluated, so this isn't out of the blue. Yes, this announcement ensures that the CFL's the only professional football in town in 2014, and that the Argos won't be overshadowed by the Bills (ahead of last year's East Final, their supposed home at the Rogers Centre was already decked out for the upcoming NFL game, which caused a stir). If this turns out to be just a one-year suspension of the series, it could well be a good thing. However, the series has substantial benefits for the CFL overall, and if it's scrapped entirely, that could be problematic.

Why does the Bills-in-Toronto series help the CFL? Well, it ensures that the NFL only competes with the CFL in Toronto on a strictly-limited, once-a-year (or twice in the case of years where a preseason game has been held north of the border as well) terms, and last year's extension of the deal through 2017 gave the CFL some security for the future, suggesting only limited NFL incursions up to that point. If this deal is scrapped, a more permanent NFL presence might come under discussion. Yes, that would go against typical logic, especially when you consider that these games largely haven't sold out, have received a lacklustre response and haven't enhanced Toronto's reputation as a potential NFL destination. If anything, this series (plus NFL-related blunders from the Ford brothers) has hurt the chances of the city landing a NFL team, and if this was a typical situation, the Bills' struggles in Toronto probably would mean that the idea of a permanent team in the city was off the table for at least the next while. The Toronto situation is anything but typical, though.

It's important to consider the big money involved, and the reports of rock star Jon Bon Jovi potentially partnering with his good buddies at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to buy the Bills once 95-year-old owner Ralph Wilson dies and move them to Toronto can't be dismissed. Yes, there are significant obstacles in the way. For one thing, there would likely be considerable public and governmental backlash against any NFL incursion that hurt the CFL, and a permanent NFL franchise north of the border likely would damage the CFL as a league, not just the Argos. For another, the NFL's ownership rules make it tough for corporations like MLSE to get involved. Beyond that, there would be massive opposition in New York to moving the Bills, and the NFL as a whole likely isn't all that keen on relocating a long-established franchise like Buffalo. If the Bills are going to move, though, Toronto is the most likely destination; it's a massive, well-heeled market that isn't already tapped extensively by the NFL, it can be sold as a "regional relocation" (along the lines of the 49ers' upcoming move from San Francisco to Santa Clara), and there are plenty of big-pocketed and influential local types on board. Moreover, the lacklustre fan support thus far can be billed as something that would change if Toronto fans had a permanently-local team of their own to root for.

Even the CFL may not present an insurmountable obstacle to a permanent NFL franchise in Toronto, especially if MLSE follows through on their long-rumoured plans to buy the Argos. If a group involved with the NFL team also owns the CFL team, that might make it possible for the CFL team to survive, and that in turn would diminish much of the public and governmental opposition to having the NFL in Canada permanently. (This would still likely be bad for the CFL, though, just perhaps not disastrous.) That's why the NFL to Toronto rumours have only intensified despite the struggles of the Bills' Toronto series, and that's why the cancellation of that series (if it happens) could actually mark a step forwards towards a permanent NFL team north of the border.

With the Bills-in-Toronto series, there are clearly-defined terms of engagement for the NFL in Canada. Every year that sees that series go less than well (which seems to be the pattern of late, and marks why this is being reconsidered) for the Bills perhaps diminishes Toronto as a NFL market a little more. Without that series, the situation steps back from hard data on how the NFL is received in Toronto to speculation about how it will be received, and that favours the case for putting a full-time team there given the economic factors mentioned above. This is far from a crisis for the CFL right now, and if this turns out to be just a one-year suspension of the deal, it may not have much of an effect at all. If the series is cancelled entirely, though, that could be problematic, as the CFL would lose its buffer of limited NFL engagement. It's a long way from a certainty that there will ever be a NFL team permanently based in Toronto, especially considering how poorly this series has gone, but far more possibilities are open without a limited series like this. Thus, the Bills stepping back from Toronto in the short term doesn't remove them as a long-term threat. If anything, it might increase the chances of them eventually moving north of the border.

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