What are the CFL implications of Buffalo Bills’ executives reconsidering their Toronto series?

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Buffalo Bills' president Russ Brandon announced on his weekly radio show Wednesday that the team is going to reevaluate their Toronto series in the wake of Sunday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons, which dropped Buffalo to 1-5 in regular-season games played north of the border. That's not all that surprising: Bills' players have publicly complained about the series in the past, particularly thanks to the lack of a home atmosphere (Falcons' safety William Moore said "We had a lot of support here" after Sunday's win) and the lack of an edge from Buffalo's wintery conditions, and it's not like the Toronto games are drawing well, with just 38,969 showing up Sunday (the smallest total of the series). Of course, it doesn't mean that the Bills are actually going to pull out of the series; they just signed a new five-year agreement for games in Toronto earlier this year. If they did, though, that could have substantial implications for the CFL.

The Bills-in-Toronto series has actually served as a useful buffer for the CFL, and this latest extension seemed like good news for the Canadian league. As long as the Bills are playing one regular-season game a year in Toronto, the market's off-limits to other NFL teams in terms of relocation (or even expansion). That's important for a healthy Argonauts' franchise, which is in turn important for a healthy CFL; the league isn't pulling in TV deals like the one it landed earlier this year without a strong Toronto presence. Moreover, that one regular-season game is usually played after the CFL season is over, so it's not like the Bills are going head-to-head with the Argonauts. It's a minimal invasion, and one that not only doesn't really threaten the CFL, but one that provides it with a bit of a security blanket. Yes, the Bills-in-Toronto series can be viewed as a precursor to eventually moving the team there (maybe even with a Jon Bon Jovi-MLSE partnership running them) if the series goes well, but it hasn't gone well, and the existence of the series makes it hard for any other NFL team to consider Toronto. (It also keeps the Bills from getting too greedy over the supposed Toronto market, as they're already raking in dollars from this series.)

However, if the Bills pull out of the series, that won't necessarily be disastrous for the CFL. Yes, a big part of the lacklustre fan reception has been thanks to how bad both the Bills and their opponents in Toronto have been; Atlanta entered this game 2-9, while Buffalo was 4-7, and that's relatively par for the course for this series. Better teams might well draw more. Low numbers at something like this don't look good for the chances of putting an NFL team in Toronto permanently, though, regardless of how bad the games are, and it's notable that even the "better-attended" games in this series have only been so thanks to tons of free tickets being handed out. If the Bills do wind up pulling back from Toronto (which may be unlikely, considering the newly-signed contract and how much they make off Toronto games), that would take away the CFL's safety buffer, but it's highly unlikely that Buffalo or any other NFL team views Toronto as a hot market right now given how poorly these games have gone (plus the continued involvement of local politicians Rob and Doug Ford, who aren't exactly the most respected figures right now), and the Bills pulling back from just one game a year wouldn't bode well for Toronto's chances of landing a permanent team.

Either way could work for the CFL, really. If the Bills stick around, the Argos keep their safety buffer and NFL relocation or expansion to the city is off the table for at least the duration of that deal. If they don't, though, they're pulling out at a particularly low moment for the NFL north of the border, and that won't favour a NFL team coming to town permanently. While all that looks good for the CFL and the Argos, though, it's notable that things often change quickly in the NFL world, and that may be particularly true for a Bills franchise with a 95-year-old owner and a limited number of options to stay viable in Western New York. The CFL should be keeping a close eye on the Bills in Toronto situation, even if it doesn't look dire right now.

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