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Bills In Toronto A Gamble

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Buffalo Bills players stand for the playing of the national anthem before the start of NFL game action against the Baltimore Ravens at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sept. 29, 2013 in Orchard Park, N.Y. Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images.
Buffalo Bills players stand for the playing of the national anthem before the start of NFL game action against the Baltimore Ravens at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sept. 29, 2013 in Orchard Park, N.Y. Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images.

The Buffalo Bills will “host” the Atlanta Falcons in December, but not in their hometown: the Bills will suit up in Toronto for the beginning of their second five-year agreement to bring the NFL to Canada. Will this game – and those in the four years that follow – be a good move for the Bills, or a mistake that will sabotage their hoped-for comeback?

The answer lies in the numbers, but which numbers?

The Bills have been playing in Canada for 5 years already, taking away a home game from the Buffalo region. Is the Bills Toronto Series growing a fan base, or eroding one? Is the series causing harm to the always-ailing Buffalo economy? And, will the NFL see its goal to reach a global market flourish in Toronto?

According to a Sun Media “Who is Your Favourite NFL Team” poll – note the non-American English spelling – in Canadian newspapers in 2012, the Bills placed third in Toronto behind the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots. Fewer than 10 percent of those polled chose the Bills first. A lukewarm reception, after a full five-year presence, is not promising for a full-time hometown move.

However, other numbers could point to Toronto, as thousands of Canadian Bills fans continue to drive an hour to cross the border for games played in Buffalo. With a strong following like that from its Canadian neighbors, the Bills might do just fine across the border – assuming, of course, that the current tens of thousands of American fans would drive the hour to Toronto.

Would the Bills’ fan base be flat-out bigger in Toronto? The numbers can go either way here, too.

The city of Toronto has a population more than double that of Buffalo, at 2.79 million. The surrounding area inflates the population to 5.5 million.

Buffalo, New York’s second largest city, comes in at 1.1 million and sliding downward. Straight numbers make a move north seem obvious, but half of Toronto’s population was not born in Canada. Regional team loyalty may not exist for that half, which could even the population playing field.  The rest of New York’s population is nothing to sneeze at, either. Populations and their spending money, then, are wobbly factors on which to gamble, making a profitable move for the Bills hard to predict.

The immediate and long-term damage to the Buffalo economy, however, is a given if the team moves to Toronto. Loyalties are strong in Buffalo, but resentment could be stronger.

Teams other than the Bills are being considered for Toronto, one of the largest cities in North America; the National-turned-International Football League would be foolish to throw away good money to be found in an English-speaking market so close to home. Whether or not moving the Bills out of Buffalo is the way to reach that market remains to be seen.