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Official Review by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Buffalo Bills centre Eric Wood recently described the Bills playing in Toronto as "a joke." He stated that the Bills were giving up their home field advantage by going to Toronto and playing once a year.
Conceived by Bills owner Ralph Wilson, Larry Tannenbaum, and the late Ted Rogers of Rogers Communications, the Bills Toronto Series is an annual home game for the Bills which is held at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, home of the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts. The fifth, and final instalment of the original deal was played in 2012 amidst significant controversy. The deal has been widely panned in Buffalo, most-recently by Bills players, and viewed specifically as a money grab by the Bills. The Bills are currently negotiating a new deal with Rogers for an extension to the series. The recent lease agreement the Bills have signed with Erie County to keep the Bills playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium has a contingency for the series to continue in its current format.
Many viewed the Bills Series as setting up the inevitable move of the Bills from Buffalo to Toronto. If the Bills Series was an audition for Toronto and the NFL then NFL fans in Toronto should not hold their breath for a permanent team to make their way north of the border.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The food selections remain the same at the Bills Series. All of the regular favourites can be found at the Rogers Centre. The higher than normal crowd at the Rogers Centre has all of the concessions open, which is a bonus. The best options can be found on the main level. The best selections include the Quaker Steak and Lube and the Marketplace. Pizza Pizza is very common as are the Hogtown Grills. You won't go hungry at the Rogers Centre, and the prices are reasonable.
The huge factor that atmosphere plays in the fan experience when the Bills play in Ralph Wilson Stadium is totally lost when they play at the Rogers Centre. Many of the same seating issues that plague the Toronto Argonauts, also plague the Bills. The Rogers Centre was not designed very well for football. What many would view as the "most premium" seats in the Rogers Centre, are tarped off because the view is so poor. The slope of the front rows of seats are too gradual and spectators can't see over the players in the bench area.
One of the more original features of the Rogers Centre, is the incorporation of the Renaissance Hotel right into the stadium. There are numerous rooms that look right out onto the field. In a move that rivals the NCAA in pettiness (the NCAA drapes black curtains over permanent advertisements in stadia, that are not sponsors of a particular NCAA event) the Bills Series covers the hotel room window with giant, gaudy advertisements. The end result is the look of the outfield wall in a minor-league baseball ballpark. The tackiness is not becoming of the NFL.
The organizers do make an attempt to create an atmosphere that is more akin to a major event. They have put together some significant acts for halftime shows. The 2012 edition of the Bills Series featured a halftime performance by Psy and his runaway hit "Gangnam Style." The Bills also put together a street party on Front Street, which had some live music, but there was really little to get excited about. For a Bills fan who makes the trip from Buffalo, the experience is very different from the significant tailgating scene that can be found in Orchard Park.
Downtown Toronto is a great place to be. There are many options for things to do outside of football, including a trip up the CN Tower, a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame, or a trip to the Eaton Centre. A brand new aquarium being built at the bottom of the CN Tower makes for a bit of a construction mess. Toronto's theatre scene is second only to Broadway, and there are a ton of hotel options including the historic Fairmont Royal York.
As far as restaurant options, they are numerous. Front Street has a plethora of options including The Loose Moose, Texas Lone Star Grill, East Side Mario's, Joe Badali's and Canyon Creek. A little bit of a walk up Blue Jays Way will bring you to Wayne Gretzky's, which is a fantastic place as well. Over by the Air Canada Centre, you will find the RealSports Bar and Grill. If you are coming into Toronto for the football game, make sure you are making a whole weekend out of it!
The organizers of the Bills Series have stumbled and overestimated the fans in Toronto. First of all, it must be understood that Toronto is a cosmopolitan city, especially with regards to the NFL. Buffalo may be the closest NFL city to Toronto, however there are not a significantly higher number of Bills fans in Toronto, than any other fans. At the 2012 edition of the Bills Series, there were a significant number of Seattle Seahawks fans. Around the stadium, however, you could find a myriad of NFL jerseys from all different teams. There is also not a huge contingent of Bills fans who are making the trip from Western New York and taking over the Rogers Centre.
The second issue that the organizers have overestimated is the demand for NFL Football in Toronto. The initial pricing scheme was over the top expensive. That immediately turned off many fans. Ted Rogers was quoted at the initial press conference announcing the deal, that there would only be 2 tickets that would be priced under $100. There have been price adjustments, but in the end, attendance has been declining over 5 years with just over 40,000 fans announced for the 2012 edition. That is not nearly enough for a major event in Toronto. For a comparison, the 2009 International Bowl, featuring the University at Buffalo Bulls, brought in the same number of fans. If the intent of this series was to eventually move the Bills to Toronto, or show that Toronto is an NFL city, then it is undeniable that the series has been a failure.
With the lack of fans, and the cosmopolitan nature of Toronto fans, the end result is a game where no team has any sort of home field advantage. It is more of a neutral site game than anything else, and that does not make for the most fun atmosphere from a fan perspective.
Getting to the Rogers Centre is pretty easy. It is located right by the Gardiner Expressway. Lakeshore Blvd. is also a good option for getting downtown. There are plenty of surface lots for parking, but the owners know where there bread is buttered. On a bigger event day like the Bills Series, the price gets jacked up! Union Station is also a couple of blocks from the dome. Via Rail, the TTC and Go Train all make stops at Union Station, so there are many ways for getting into downtown Toronto.
Once inside the Rogers Centre, the concourses remain wide enough and washroom facilities are adequate for the crowd.
Pricing for this event has been an ongoing issue. With many tickets priced over $100, and no real attachment to the Bills, attendance has been an issue. Over time the prices have dropped, but still remain very high compared to a Bills game in Orchard Park.
Parking is expensive, and concessions are pretty good. Taking in the overall costs of the event, and comparing it to an experience in Orchard Park, Toronto is a different, but probably not the best option. The atmosphere is not what one would expect in any other NFL market, and that is not a good thing. Therefore, the return is not nearly up to par with the investment.
An extra mark for the attempt to bring a big event feel to the game, by bringing in halftime act Psy.
The Bills Toronto Series looks like it will be extended through 2017. The problem is that there seems to be little support for that extension on either side of the border. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the Bills after they have signed their new lease to continue playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium. As for Toronto, they have done nothing to prove that they are worthy of an NFL franchise of their own. This is probably not the best location for your NFL dollars, but a weekend in Toronto can be awesome.
**Follow all of Dave's journeys on twitter @profan9
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