Today is a historic day for the NFL, Toronto, and Canada. The Buffalo Bills will play against the Miami Dolphins in the first ever regular season NFL game in Canada. This is part of a deal announced in January 2008 that sees the Bills playing 5 regular season games and 3 exhibition games in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, and the 5th largest metropolitan area in North America.
(Today also marks the 67th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, though I don’t see it in the news anywhere… maybe they’ll mention it on the 70th anniversary)
When the Bills first announced they were going to play in Toronto, there was much speculation about whether this was part of a longer-term plan to move the team to Toronto, with Buffalo’s dwindling economy, and with Bill’s owner 90-year-old Ralph Wilson approaching the end of his life with nobody willing to succeed him in owning the Bills.
It was my first instinct to be thrilled by the prospect of Toronto having an NFL team. Not because I’m a football fan, but more as an inhabitant of this city. I think it would make Toronto a truly prestigious sports city. We have an NHL team, an NBA team, a MLB team, a professional soccer team, and a CFL team, so having an NFL team would complete this city as a destination for every type of sports fans.
But then when the Bills played an exhibition game here in Toronto, it quickly became apparent that an NFL team will never be the same in Toronto as it is in Buffalo. First of all, the tickets are up to 5 times the price in Toronto than they were in Buffalo. Sure, that’s great for business and a great reason to bring a team to Toronto, but it’s not great for the fans. We already know that the true Toronto Maple Leaf fans are watching the game at a bar or watching the game at home because tickets to the game are exclusively available to the corporate elite, the suits, or the Bay street bankers (Whatever you want to call them). Most seats are corporate-owned for schmoozing clients and are overpriced for the average fan. Because of this, the atmosphere could never be the same in Toronto as it was in Buffalo.
On top of the ticket prices, watching a game in Buffalo was a whole experience in itself (I’ve been to a few games myself). You go to the stadium at 8 or 9 in the morning; you drink beer, cook meat on your portable barbeque and you throw a football around in the parking lot. The game itself is only a part of the whole experience. You can’t have that in Toronto; we don’t have the space for the parking lots, and we don’t have the laws to allow open fire and beer in a parking lot.
So although I am excited about putting Toronto on the map in the NFL, I’m afraid that the experience just won’t be the same here for the fans. Toronto’s reputation as a sports city is on the line, and filling a stadium with 54,000 men in suits won’t help distinguish this as a true sports city.