Bon Jovi, MLSE and the NFL in Toronto: The latest in a series of fantasies?

Chris Zelkovich
The Eh Game

Prediction: Here's a headline from the 2120 version of whatever will have replaced newspapers: "NFL franchise for Toronto on the horizon."

Pardon the skepticism, but one gets a tad worn down by the annual reports that Canada's biggest city is about to become home to either an NFL expansion team or one seeking greener pastures. It's only been going on for about 40 years.

The latest report, which surfaced on the weekend courtesy of CBS Sports, has rock star Jon Bon Jovi pairing up with the moneybags at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to buy the Buffalo Bills and move them permanently to Toronto. According to reporter Jason La Canfora, Bon Jovi has been working the back corridors of power between concerts to lay the groundwork that would allow him to buy the Bills when 95-year-old owner Ralph Wilson finally passes on.

The fact that Bon Jovi denied the reports on Monday will probably only add fuel to the NFL-is-coming fire. Bon Jovi publicist Ken Sunshine dismissed the reports as “preposterous.”

He told The Associated Press the Bills are not for sale and that Bon Jovi has too much respect for current owner Ralph Wilson to engage in discussions about buying the team.

That's not exactly what was reported, though. Nobody said Bon Jovi was trying to take the team away from Wilson or that he was engaging in discussions to buy the Bills. His reported interest is in buying the team after negotiating with Wilson's heirs a few years down the road.

Bon Jovi has a lot of money, a net worth of about $300 million, and has enough ties with MLSE to make such a move possible. He's buddies with MLSE boss Tim Leiweke, which may explain how Bon Jovi ended up on the Air Canada Centre's Wall of Fame recently.

And Leiweke told the Toronto Star's Cathal Kelly on Sunday that he and the rocker talk weekly about his NFL hopes.

"And so we’re actively engaged, but I think it’s still a work in progress," Leiweke said.

"We can’t own a team (per NFL rules), but we do have more expertise on how to build (stadiums) than anyone. MLSE can play a role. We’re not the lead here. Our job is to augment whatever group may come together.”

While it all sounds doable, Leiweke touches on the key missing ingredient: an NFL-worthy stadium. That is the stumbling block that will likely keep the NFL out of Canada for some time to come.

Let's look at the numbers. The price tag on the Bills won't be less than a billion dollars. So if Bon Jovi cashes in all his stocks, bonds and vintage guitars somebody like Rogers Communications would need to cobble together another $700 million.

That's a bit of a stretch, but not impossible.

But that's just to get the keys to the franchise. The NFL isn't going to approve a permanent move unless it's to an NFL-calibre stadium. That means about 80,000 seats -- a lot more than the Rogers Centre can hold. So now you're looking at a new stadium.

Considering that the Rogers Centre was built 24 years ago for about $600 million, it safe to say a new home would run close to $1 billion -- before the inevitable cost overruns.

And who's going to pay for that? Well, last time around it was Ontario taxpayers and under no circumstances is any government in this country going to make that mistake again. Even a politician in a drunken stupor wouldn't sign that cheque.

This time the cheque will have to written by private interests. MLSE has a lot of money and did build an arena for its hockey and basketball teams, so spending a billion dollars on a stadium is possible. But selling that outlay to shareholders and investors would be tough, especially in a depressed economy.

But even if that happens, there's the matter of what the NFL wants. It needs to satisfy American cities first, which would mean Los Angeles is more likely to get a team than Toronto. Heck, Portland might be higher on the list of priorities. And there's been chatter about the Jacksonville Jaguars moving to London.

Finally, the NFL is still a bit queasy about moving into Canada and surely turning the CFL into a semi-pro league without the country's largest city -- and home to the major advertisers -- involved.

La Canfora paints a slightly different scenario. ``The NFL has a vested interest in keeping the Bills a regional team, for Western New York and Southern Ontario, and in most any scenario the team will continue sharing games to some degree with Toronto," he wrote. ``And if Rogers Communications were to get the team and get a Super Bowl-quality stadium built in Canada, then undoubtedly the number of games played in Toronto would increase over time."

So for $1 billion dollars, Toronto could get a new stadium and a couple more Bills games. Hardly seems like a great investment.

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