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Why the Bills-in-Toronto extension could actually be good news for the CFL—in the short term

Andrew Bucholtz
55 Yard Line

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C.J. Spiller (28) and the Buffalo Bills, seen in Toronto in 2012, are set to play more games in Canada.

The Buffalo Bills have come to an agreement to extend their series of games in Toronto. Sun Media's John Kryk broke the news Monday night, and he adds that the deal is expected to follow along the lines of what he initially reported last May before it was delayed by stadium negotiations in Buffalo. That would mean one NFL regular-season game in Toronto for each of the next five years, plus one exhibition game over that span. At first glance, that may cause some CFL fans to worry; the long-looming spectre of the NFL in Toronto feels a lot closer when there are regular-season games being played in town. However, the specifics involved in this deal may actually benefit the CFL over the next five years.

When the Bills in Toronto series started in 2008, it was reasonable to see it as a potential precursor to moving the team (or another NFL franchise) into Toronto, which had long been touted as one of the most logical markets for NFL relocation. That naturally spurred fears about if the Argonauts and the CFL could survive if an NFL team came to town, and it led to plenty of backlash from CFL fans. However, the series hasn't played out that way. By 2010, the Bills-in-Toronto exercise already felt like a set of one-off incursions that didn't necessarily threaten the CFL, and the meter's ticked even more that way since. The lukewarm local response has certainly helped reduce the discussions about moving an NFL team north of the border, but the most significant element here is what's changed with the Bills.

Back in 2008, there was significant speculation about the Bills moving. That hasn't entirely died down, especially when you consider that owner Ralph Wilson is now 94. However, the franchise now may have reasons to stick around Western New York post-Wilson. Last month, they signed a $135 million deal for significant upgrades to Ralph Wilson Stadium, and that deal comes with a $400 million penalty if the franchise moves in the next six years. (There's a $28 million penalty in year seven, which is still substantial, but much less so.) Those upgrades themselves should help convince the team to stay in Orchard Park, NY for at least the next six years, and the penalty for leaving's even more likely to do so.

What's really interesting is that the Toronto series has turned from the first step in a possible move to an extra incentive to keep the team in Buffalo, though. The Bills likely won't get as much from Rogers Communications as they did in the first deal ($78 million for five regular-season games and some pre-season ones over five years), but they'll still haul in a substantial chunk of change. They'll likely make far more than they'd get by just playing those games in Western New York. Thus, the Bills are essentially having their cake and eating it too, making substantial money off both the Buffalo-area and Toronto markets without moving the team. There's significant financial incentive to maintain that state of affairs, even if some of the players don't like it. Moreover, Buffalo playing one game a year in Toronto helps to tell other NFL teams looking to relocate that the GTA market is out of bounds. The way this deal is drawn up, it's likely to prevent an NFL team from coming to Toronto over the course of the agreement.

That doesn't mean that the CFL should completely relax. This is only a five-year deal, after all, and a lot can happen in five years. Moreover, if the Bills start drawing massive, friendly crowds in Toronto (certainly possible if they become a better on-field team), that might add incentive for them to relocate north of the border seven years from now. If they choose not to do that and choose not to renew the Toronto deal before then, that could reopen talks about another NFL team moving north of the border, and strong crowds for the Bills' games in Toronto would likely boost the city's case for an NFL franchise. Thus, this could be problematic down the road under a particular set of circumstances. There's a ways to go before then, though. For the moment, this deal should keep the NFL from setting up permanent shop in Toronto for five years, and it may wind up keeping the league out for longer if an extension is negotiated down the road.. That's something for CFL fans and executives to be happy about.

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