Lefko: Bills in Toronto ain’t coming back

November 7, 2010, 6:34 AM

Sorry, Jim, but the fact the Buffalo Bills experiment in Toronto has bombed will have little effect on the National Football League considering Toronto as a full-time franchise for the future.

Yeah, if the Bills hadn’t been the equivalent of road kill, it might have made for a more inspiring story in their home away from home. But it has little impact on the big picture, which is that if the NFL had wanted to place a team in Toronto it would have done so long before Bills owner Ralph Wilson did. The NFL is fully aware of its international brand and looks for ways to expand marketing opportunities to pad the owners’ pockets.

It’s the reason it has played some regular-season games in England and Mexico in recent years. It’s all about branding. It really has little to do with testing the waters for future expansion.

It’s going to take someone with a whack of cash to make it so tempting for the NFL to agree to such a proposition. For something like 30 years, Toronto sportsman Paul Godfrey has pushed the NFL to the Toronto platform. It’s no different than his desire to bring a Major League Baseball team to Toronto, which he did, and push for a domed stadium, which also became a reality. But it has been a long and much more ambitious grind to get the NFL to Toronto.

There is no indication if or when the NFL will make it a personal trifecta for Godfrey. If nothing else, Godfrey has increased NFL media coverage in Toronto, beginning when he was the publisher of the Toronto Sun. It has spawned major coverage in all four Toronto dailies and the various radio and television stations.

If it is true, as it has been reported, that there will be an auction for the team when Ralph Wilson dies to avoid estate taxes on his family and the person with the highest sealed bid will become the new owner, then Godfrey or anybody else who thinks Toronto can support a full-time NFL team can step up and make their best offer. Will $500 million do it, $800 million or possibly $1 billion?

If a person or, in Godfrey’s case a consortium, wins out, then it’s a matter of working on renovating the Rogers Centre to fit the minimum seating level required by the NFL and then building a new stadium with all kinds of state-of-the-art luxury boxes, amenities and parking streams. Let’s say that’s worth anywhere from $300 million to $500 million, or double that if you’re a Jerry Jones clone.

But how would you sell Torontonians on the NFL having seen the damage done already when the colossal Bills in Toronto idea will have left a rancid lingering odour after it finally ends in 2012? Marketing 101 suggests that when a product fails it’s best to not repackage it.

The NFL okayed the idea of Ralph Wilson selling eight games over five years for $78 million because it could pad the owner’s pockets. Playing in a small market, Wilson has been limited by added revenue streams that major-market teams can reap. So if Wilson could lease some games and make a bundle, the NFL wasn’t going to stand in his way.

If Wilson had tried to sell the franchise and move it to Toronto, he would have met the equivalent of a goal-line stand with considerable pushback.

It says here that someone or some group will keep the Bills where they are after Wilson goes to the celestial owner’s box. Does anyone think the NFL won’t try to exert its muscle and power to keep the Bills where they are through some behind-the-scenes intervention? Don’t you think there’s an action plan in place already?

So enjoy this little taste of the NFL, Torontonians. Enjoy the fact you paid ridiculous prices for games that are a fraction of the cost in Buffalo. Enjoy the fact you haven’t truly had a real tailgate party, but rather a phony corporate version. Enjoy the fact you were able to see some star players, though hardly enough of the really big ones — unless you count Terrell Owens, who was a Bill for one year and brought his act to Toronto. We did enjoy seeing the Miami Dolphins and Ricky Williams, though we had already seen him toil for a season in with the Argos — that OTHER pro football team in Toronto.

When the NFL circus finally leaves Toronto, it ain’t coming back — certainly not on a full-time basis, Jim. If the next owner of the Bills wants to dupe someone into buying the NFL brand for a few games here and there, well, anything is possible.

Fool you once shame on me. Fool you twice, shame on you.

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