Ted Rogers was a pioneer in many ways prior to his passing in 2008. He started a communications empire that now has 12 year olds J-walking while updating their Facebook status. And in his final years he loosened the purse strings on the Toronto Blue Jays, a young team that maybe–just maybe–is ready to seriously compete.
But for all of his innovation and ambition, there’s one project he overestimated. For the fifth time we’ll be reminded of that fact this weekend, as the latest instalment of the Bills Toronto Series takes place at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Actually, there may be many more years of mediocre football left to be played in Canada’s largest city. Despite lacklustre ticket sales and merchandise rotting in the Rogers Centre store, executives are engaging in standard business backslapping, saying they’re “in this for the long haul” and committed to extending the series beyond 2012 and the original five-year plan.
Those words came from Rogers vice chairman Phil Lind Friday afternoon, one of the high-ranking officials who flanked Rogers as he signed off on a infamously obese $78 million contract to bring NFL regular season football to Canada for the first time in 2008.
Enthusiasm and charisma are captivating character traits that can drive great leaders to do great things. But even Lind admits the youthful ambition of Rogers hasn’t been matched in capital returns throughout the series.
“I think that, when we first announced it, Mr. Rogers was perhaps a bit over-enthusiastic,” Lind told The Canadian Press. “That’s how he was with everything.”
Although he chose his words carefully, Lind said splitting the Bills’ home games between Toronto and Buffalo has been discussed.
However, the definition of the word “splitting” depends on your vantage point.
“When I say splitting, I wouldn’t even go near that,” said Lind. “It could mean two and eight games. But splitting doesn’t mean 50-50.”
It’s hard to accept football as a business when you’re sitting on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon with a mouthful of Cheetos and a batch of wings slowly simmering. A business is a harsh, cold, calculating environment control by ruthless men who roll out of bed wearing well-pressed suits. But football is a business, and it’s one were logical business thinking is a necessity.
For all the wonder and ambition driving Rogers, it seems this sense of logic is what’s lacking. To dramatically expand a major business venture like the Bills Toronto Series, sustainability is vital. Toronto is a fine football market that’s supported the Argos since 1873, and fans from southern Ontario routinely make the trip to Buffalo for Bills games.
To flog the dead horse that Gagnon has been flogging for quite some time, the success of the Bills Toronto Series is not forever linked to Toronto’s viability as an NFL city. Putting a perennial basement dwelling team into a market already exposed to football is hardly a fair litmus test. At 0-7, the Bills remain the league’s only winless team, and barring a miraculous turnaround they’ll miss the playoffs for the 11th straight season.
Are you excited for Sunday yet? And will your excitement last for years to come? Because that’s the vision of Lind and his Rogers colleagues, even though as of late Friday night Sunday’s game still isn’t sold out. The 54,000 capacity at Rogers Centre for a football game hasn’t been filled yet for the previous two regular season games in the series (attendance was 52,134 and 51,167).
The amount of fannies in seats for the pre-season games has taken a nose dive too. In August 39,583 watched the Bills beat the Colts, compared to the 48,434 that watched the Bills’ win over the Steelers in 2008. Much of this can be blamed on inflated ticket prices, as in the past Rogers gauged Canadian football fans to the tune of–on average–$200 a ticket, much higher than the Bills’ average ticket price of about $60 at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Rogers has now decreased prices and made 14,000 seats available at less than $100. But still no sellout.
Toronto isn’t the only stop on the NFL’s globetrotting, as last weekend 84,000 people cheered this odd, foreign sport at Wembley Stadium in London. The UK has novelty on its side, and a public intrigued by a widely popular sport from across the pond. Having a quality game with quality competition is a mere bonus.
For Canadian fans, competition is a necessity to achieve staying power, something the Bills are still flailing at in the Great White North.