The Buffalo Bills won’t be coming north this season.
The NFL club and Rogers Communications announced Wednesday they’ve put the beleaguered Bills Toronto Series — which features Buffalo playing exhibition and regular-season games at Rogers Centre — on hold for at least a year. That means the team will play eight home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., for the first time since 2007.
"The plan is to postpone it for one year, regroup and determine what’s the next best step," said Keith Pelley, the president of Rogers Communications’ media division. "It’s not nullified right now, we have an agreement in place.
"Anything is possible but that’s not the plan. The plan is to take a step back and say, ‘OK, the Series is having some challenges, the NFL is still big in Toronto, it’s still important to the Bills so what’s the best way to move forward?"’
The decision comes a little more than a year after the Bills and Rogers agreed to renew the series for five years, though 2017 after the original five-year deal expired.
A series-low gathering of 38,969 watched the Atlanta Falcons nip Buffalo 34-31 in overtime Dec. 1 at Rogers Centre, which can seat 54,000 spectators for football. The loss dropped the Bills’ regular-season record in Toronto to a dismal 1-5 — and 0-4 in December — since the start of the series in ’08.
Buffalo also sports the NFL’s longest active post-season drought at 14 straight seasons.
Bills president Russ Brandon said the atmosphere at Rogers Centre versus Atlanta figured in the club’s decision to take a step back.
"I think that’s a fair comment," Brandon told reporters in Orchard Park. "Obviously we’re trying to build a fan base north of the border and this year I would say it was a neutral crowd.
"Some of that had to do with how we played over the last six years, (that) has really not been conducive to building a lot of fans that were NFL fans, but we’re trying to make them Bills fans. We’re going to continue to try to do that through a variety of initiatives that we will be working with Rogers over the next year in a very robust sponsorship and partnership that we will have that will cater to fans above the border."
Following the loss to Atlanta, Brandon publicly questioned whether his club loses its competitive edge playing in Toronto. Buffalo has often battled neutral crowds at its home away from home.
Bills games at Rogers Centre routinely attract a mix of NFL fans who proudly don their team colours and cheer as loudly — or sometimes louder — for Buffalo’s opponent than the home team.
In fact, several Falcons players were surprised at the support they received at Rogers Centre.
"It didn’t feel like we were in Canada," said Atlanta safety William Moore. "I even saw a No. 25 jersey (Moore’s number) out there."
What’s more, playing in a domed facility robs the Bills of their biggest home advantage: The cold, windy conditions that are the norm in December at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"We’re going to go through a detailed full analysis," Brandon said. "We’re going to look at every aspect that if we do come back we have a more robust fan experience and try to create more of a home field advantage for us.
"Right now that was not the situation. That was one of the reasons we want to get in to a lot of detail with our partners up there and see if that is viable moving forward."
Brandon’s statement "if we do come back," prompted a followup question regarding whether the Bills might’ve played their final game in Toronto.
"What I said is that we’re going through a full evaluation process and we’ll work with our partners," Brandon responded.
The Bills Toronto Series was unveiled as an attempt to showcase Toronto as a viable NFL city. Rogers Communications Inc. paid US$78 million to stage eight games — five regular season, three exhibition — expecting southern Ontario fans to flock to Rogers Centre.
But high-priced tickets — initially averaging over $180 each, compared to roughly US$51 at Orchard Park –and struggling Bills teams combined to make it a tough sell. Tickets were reduced to roughly an average price of $99 to make the game more affordable but even that didn’t result in a sellout.
"It’s always very difficult to change public opinion midway through a project," Pelley said. "There’s no hiding the fact the series did not get off to a rosy start.
"It tough midway through to change that perception, hence the reason why we thought it would be a best to take a year off then re-launch it once we’ve thought that through."
Series organizers have also struggled to find the right formula to re-create the NFL experience here. A huge attraction for many American football fans is arriving at the stadium hours before kickoff, setting up the barbecue to cook a variety of foods while throwing a football around in the parking lot or breaking down the upcoming game with friends over a cold beer.
However, provincial laws make that impossible in Toronto.
The creation of the series also fuelled speculation Toronto would be the landing spot for the Bills upon the death of Ralph Wilson Jr., the club’s 95-year-old owner. However, Brandon routinely stated the NFL club was merely broadening its regional base to include Canada’s largest city and generate additional revenue.
Brandon said the Bills must take ownership for their role in the series’ struggles.
"I think it’s been a roller-coaster from the standpoint of just the losses," he said. "That’s on us.
"Some of the initiatives Rogers has worked through on their end have improved, but obviously this past year was disappointing with that neutral crowd that we had there, to say the least. I think there have been positives. As I mentioned earlier, the biggest positive has been the influx of fans back here at Ralph Wilson Stadium."
Now the question remains whether the Bills can sell out eight home games in 2014.
"Obviously last year we had to really work for our sellouts, understandably so," Brandon said. "That’s something that we’re willing to take on, that challenge.
"We have very passionate fans and tremendous fans, but we have to really work to sell tickets here as we’ve discussed in the past. We’re not satisfied until every seat in this building is sold. That’s always the No. 1 initiative and really the foundation of how we run our business."