Brunt: Are four downs coming north?

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The Bills’ days in Buffalo may be numbered, and the long-rumoured debut of the NFL in Canada could be nigh

It has been a dream for some for going on 40 years now, a nightmare for others, and now it seems it will once more be deferred.

As ghoulish as it might seem, the death of Ralph Wilson was always going to be Toronto’s best opportunity to land a National Football League franchise, for a whole bunch of perfectly logical reasons.

The estate of one of the founding fathers of the American Football League would be sold to maximize the return for his heirs (Wilson bought his team for $25,000 way back in 1960). In a free market, an NFL franchise would fetch north of a billion dollars and it would wind up in the place where that kind of investment could best be justified.

Buffalo, one of the smallest cities in the NFL, with an antiquated stadium and the lowest ticket prices in the league, wouldn’t be able to compete with Los Angeles, or London  . . . or Toronto. The latter had already been deemed part of the Bills’ territory by virtue of annual games played at the Rogers Centre, which made it debatable whether a shift from one city to the other would even be considered a relocation under the league’s bylaws.

And for years, moneyed Toronto interests had been courting the NFL, and in return the NFL hierarchy had been whispering sweet nothings in their ears.

Once Wilson shuffled off this mortal coil, the process would be set in motion. There would be hurdles for sure: Who would pay for an NFL stadium in Toronto? Would political opposition rise to protect the Canadian Football League? But once it looked like a team in Toronto might be a reality, and once it became clear that whoever would own it would also have to find a way to look after the Argonauts, it was understood that those obstacles would surely be surmounted.

Wilson died in March at age 95, leaving behind his team—and a bit of a poison pill. The Bills will indeed be sold to the highest bidder by a trust (estate taxes made simply leaving the franchise to his heirs all but impossible), but only to someone who will take on a lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium that runs through 2022 and is very expensive to break, at least until 2020, when an out clause allows the team to walk away for a one-time payment of $28.4 million. (That timeline actually suits someone hoping to move the team into a new stadium in another city just fine.)

What has ensued is a kind of oddball auction featuring Donald Trump, Jon Bon Jovi and a whole lot of hysterical reporting and speculation, all of it attempting to define the potential buyers as the good guys—those who would keep the team right where it belongs in Western New York—or the bad guys (no, amazingly, not Trump), those who would take them elsewhere, notably Bon Jovi and his Toronto-based backers Larry Tanenbaum and members of the Rogers family.

Unmoved by Bon Jovi’s open letter to Bills fans pledging to do his very, very best to keep the team where it is, his band’s CDs have been burned both in Buffalo and by Argonaut fans in Toronto. (Insert music snob, techno snob and anti-CFL cheap shots here.)

But the real bottom line is this: No one, including the Buffalo-based billionaire and owner of the hockey Sabres, Terry Pegula, who now seems the odds-on favourite to land the team, is going to pledge unequivocally to keep the Bills in Buffalo in perpetuity. No one is going to close the escape window in the lease.

The team last year generated a profit of somewhere between $30 and $40 million, which was plenty for Wilson, but not nearly enough for someone buying it for a billion dollars plus, no matter how wealthy they might be.

To sufficiently reward that degree of investment, the Bills will need a new, state-of-the-art stadium, which of course will have to be largely paid for with public money. No potential owner is going to sacrifice the only bit of leverage that might make that happen—the threat of moving the team to greener, wealthier pastures, to a place like . . . Toronto.

So the dream/nightmare isn’t quite dead yet.

Someone, it seems, is about to get credit for saving the Bills in Buffalo, to be blessed by Jim Kelly and Andre Reed and all the rest of the franchise icons who have weighed in, to earn hosannas from the long-suffering supporters.

And then, not too long after the euphoria dies down, the familiar blackmail dance will begin: Build us a new park, or we’re gone.

There won’t be a “where” attached, but you know one city, just a short drive to the north, where there will still be people more than willing to fill in that blank.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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