A Bills fan is defined by a common feeling regardless of his/her country of origin, or current geographical location. It’s the fear that something will always unravel, and damage your psyche in a new and creative way. It’s the fear that even when all is well and promise is percolating, that’s only an illusion. Reality says that doom awaits.
All that is true this year as it relates to wins, losses, and playoff hopes after the Bills hit the quarter mark of their season with a 2-2 record, which placed them very much in the middle of a muddled AFC East at the time that was available for all takers as the Patriots struggled with injuries. Then inevitably the sadness came, and the mirage faded: since that quarter mark, the Bills have won only twice.
But there’s another shared emotion among Bills fans regardless of their passport: something between hatred and indifference towards the Bills Toronto Series.
I cannot confirm this unequivocally. I’m sure there are plenty of Bills fans in and around Toronto who enjoy going to see their team in their city. But the question then is one that’s persisted for several years, and now after yesterday’s all-time attendance low it needs some serious pondering: why isn’t anyone showing up? The answers remain simple in most cases, and the problem with simple answers is that their obviousness makes them so easy to ignore.
Yesterday the Bills played their sixth regular-season game in Toronto, losing for the fifth time. But this year it was crushing and deflating and just so Bills, as the 34-31 loss to the Atlanta Falcons came complete with a blown early two-touchdown lead, overtime, and soul-destroying fumbles by Stevie Johnson and Scott Chandler that ultimately handed the game over. To give you an idea of how exceptionally special that turn of events was, Johnson fumbled for only the third time in his six-year career, which includes 295 receptions.
So yes, the game was entertaining, even if the result was undesirable, and that alone is a welcome change after the Bills lost 50-17 last year, and in their only Bills Toronto Series win two years ago the game itself was a dud filled with blah (a 23-0 final over the Redskins). Few human eyes were on hand to see it, though, as a series-low 38,969 showed up, and as is his way, Toronto’s rotund mayor was the far greater attraction when he made a brief appearance, chowing down on chicken while punking an indie rocker‘s seat.
Not sure why you gotta do a guy like that, Robbie Rob. There were plenty of good seats available, an emptiness which was that much more hollow early in the affair.
— J.W. Cannon (@cannonjw) December 1, 2013
Here’s the thing about that picture, and the one above, and the many others like them: there’s very little relationship between the viability of the NFL in Toronto should it ever arrive at a future date (you’re our savior, Bon Jovi), and that pronounced smattering of blue which was drastically down from the 52,134 the inaugural Bills Toronto Series game drew in 2008. Optics are a thing, though, and to the fine people of Buffalo who love their team and are passionate about all things Bills, that number and lack of bodies is seen as an indication that Toronto doesn’t care about their team.
They’re not entirely right, but they’re not wrong either. Back to those (mostly) simple reasons for the continued face plant of the Bills Toronto Series.
The Bills suck
The aim of the series is to not only capitalize on a fanbase in southern Ontario, but also to provide an avenue for it to grow and develop. The relentless promotion of the game for over a month in every corner of the city (I’ve starred at several ads while urinating, which is appropriate I suppose) reminds all of Toronto that, yes, the Bills are coming. Of course, the far greater aim is to make some straight cash and tap into a lucrative market which is right in the Bills’ backyard, but we don’t talk about that.
Yet another larger goal is one of recruitment. When I spoke with Bills head coach Doug Marrone Saturday he talked about a process that will lead to bodies, which — in theory — breeds interest and passion in this foreign land.
“It’s a process, really, and we’re in the early stages of it. From an organizational standpoint we talk about regionalization, and you come up here and we understand that there are great sports fans in this city. Obviously we can look at the Maple Leafs and what they’ve done. We’re not trying to compete against them, but we’re just trying to get people interested in football. We do have a pretty good fanbase from Toronto that comes down to Buffalo, and we just want to keep recruiting this area and make it just like a home game for us.”
That goal is noble, though filled with problems. I’ll delve deeper into the difficulties of the Bills being a “home” team in a moment. But right now let’s focus on results, of which there have been few positives.
First, there are these infamous details of doom: the Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, and the last time they finished a season at even .500 was 2002. That’s not on Marrone, of course, as this is his first season with mostly a group of young and promising players.
But among the NFL fans in Toronto who may have only casual interest in the Bills but should in theory (that word again) still be compelled to attend an NFL game, persistent losing does little to change indifference. Since the Bills Toronto Series started, the “home” team which comes north now has a record of 33-58 going back to 2008. There’s little about that history which inspires confidence, and this year there was even less to motivate those with strong NFL interest but fringe Bills interest to spend money rather than watch other far more impactful games from the comfort of their couch groove (Chiefs-Broncos kicked off in the same time slot Sunday, as did Bengals-Chargers).
When you focus on that attendance number and those empty seats, and then use those two things to shame Toronto football fans, you’re losing sight of an again simple but fundamental fact: even though the Bills had reaching playoff hopes, the combined record of the two teams heading into yesterday’s game was 6-16.
If I’m choosing between seeing two teams with that record and watching, say, Chiefs-Broncos, the decision is easy. League wide there’s a concern about fans siding with the home experience and its multiple games, fantasy updates, and Red Zone package over the ho-rah of live football. The Falcons themselves are meeting that problem head on with their new stadium which will feature, among other things, a 100-yard long bar, and a “fantasy football lounge“. For many, the warmth of the home football battle station is far too appealing.
The choice would be much more difficult if the Bills were honestly and truly Toronto’s home team. They’re not.
The notion that the Bills are “Toronto’s team” sucks
The ads said it repeatedly. This was and is the NFL “Toronto style“. What, exactly, does that mean?
For the Bills, what it’s intended to mean is that Toronto is a second home. Although clearly ditching the true homefield advantage provided by the frigid Buffalo weather and exchanging it for the cavernous concrete of the antiquated Rogers Centre is far less than ideal, to me the implied goal from the Bills (again, aside from that money making deal) is this: we’re your team now.
The wonderful thing about a truly engaged fanbase is that even during the darkness of losing, the support never really goes away. Oh sure, there may be fewer bodies in seats, especially in Buffalo during the chill of December. But right now even a losing and often disappointing Bills team is filling 93.4 percent of Ralph Wilson Stadium. Meanwhile, 83.9 percent of Rogers Centre was filled yesterday.
The jerseys that occupied those seats are a yearly reminder of why assuming the Bills are treated as homecoming masters is flawed thinking. Regularly there’s been distinct roars for the opposition, which was most glaring last year when the Seahawks — a team with a strong fanbase in western Canada — did their steamrolling. It was much the same this year, with the small army of Falcons jerseys in the crowd beaming long before kickoff.
— John Kryk (@JohnKryk) December 1, 2013
The Falcons may be struggling this year mostly due to injuries, but they’re still a team that’s had an abundance of recent success, and has therefore built a widespread following. They’ve made the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, and they came one win shy of a Super Bowl appearance last year.
That Falcons fandom is a reflection of the geographical freedom associated with being an NFL fan in Canada. Though the Bills may be a short drive away, they’re still not a home team, giving fans the liberty to spread their affiliation wherever they please, which nearly turns the Rogers Centre into a neutral site.
The result can best be told through anecdotes, so here’s mine. I work in a sports office, where sports are a thing we cover, analyze, and yell about. That very much includes the NFL, and while there’s certainly Bills fans and support (most notably from Devang Desai, who used to cry into his keyboard around here), there’s just as much joy and agony for other teams throughout each Sunday. This space is populated by fans of the Dolphins, Steelers, Jets, Titans, and with great condolences, even two Jaguars fans.
That swath of fandom breeds even more Bills indifference when its combined with the fact that football isn’t new or a novelty in Toronto, or southern Ontario. Say what you will about the Argos and CFL football, but they’ve been a viewing option since, oh, 1873. Then there’s the less than two-hour drive to Buffalo from this fair city that Canadian Bills fans often make — many of them season-ticket holders — to get both their Bills and NFL fix where true tailgating can exist, and a much more authentic NFL gameday is enjoyed by all. The constant presence of football around Toronto (including Canadian University football) in some form is what makes any comparison to London and the greater attendance success there a logically flawed one.
Football isn’t new or special here, and the Bills aren’t Toronto’s team, or Canada’s team. They’re a team that happens to play its football close to Toronto, and for the Bills Toronto Series to ever have any sustained success over the next four years of its wretched run, the Bills don’t need to court those who already care about the Bills. No, they need to become interesting to those who care about the NFL.
And so we’ll move forward with that goal, but for now the disgust with the Bills Toronto Series is shared both in Toronto, a city unfairly painted as one that lacks NFL interest, and in Buffalo, a city clinging to its team while losing a game to a neighboring land where the passion for Bills football isn’t remotely shared.