The Buffalo Bills were a basement dweller in the NFL for almost 20 years, failing to reach the post-season at all between 2000 and 2017. During trips to Lake Ontario over a five-year period, fans of the Bills failed to see the franchise at its best. Out of six games played at the Rogers Centre between 2008 and 2013, the Bills won only once, largely due to insipid defensive performances and poor play in the quarterback position.
After 2013, the Bills did not return to Canada, but were largely ineffective in the NFL and AFC East, always sitting in the shadow of the New England Patriots.
That has all changed since the arrivals of Sean McDermott as head coach and Josh Allen at quarterback. The Bills have been nothing short of outstanding since Allen’s rise over the last two seasons. McDermott’s men are one of the leading contenders in the NFL Super Bowl odds to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy in their bid to end their drought without a crown.
Buffalo’s rise back towards the top of the NFL has been huge for the region, re-energizing a fanbase that has been plagued by a lack of success on the field dating back to their team’s four straight Super Bowl defeats. Buffalo’s fanbase is one of the most passionate in the NFL and remained loyal even in the dark days of 4-12 campaigns in 2010. The demand for tickets at Orchard Park will only rise as they continue to excel on the field.
A construction of a new stadium will reportedly be completed in 2026, further strengthening the demand for the Bills to play their full complement of home games in Buffalo. After pouring millions of dollars in funding into a new stadium, Buffalo’s owners, the Pegula family, along with taxpayers in the region, are not likely to be too keen to explore the possibility of playing games away from their new home.
This raises the question, what is the future of the NFL in Canada?
The NFL has been very successful with their International Series in the United Kingdom since 2007, so much so that up to four games per season are now played in London. The demand for more games in other countries resulted in the first NFL match being played in Germany back when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Seattle Seahawks at Allianz Arena, Munich. Mexico City also hosted one game for four seasons before being halted, and the NFL has returned to Mexico in 2022.
With the schedule already pretty full when it comes to games based overseas, Canada faces a huge battle to become part of the rotation. There could be further competition too, as both France and Spain have been mooted as potential future destinations of the International Series. Both countries have the resources and capability to host NFL games, and both have much more impressive infrastructure than can be offered by Canada and the Rogers Centre.
The relationship with the Bills was important for Toronto to keep the link to the NFL alive. Attendances were impressive in the early stages of the International Series, selling out the first four games, before the crowds dwindled in 2012 and 2013.
A crowd of only 38,969 attended the final Bills game in Toronto, when they were defeated by the Atlanta Falcons 34-31 in overtime in what was arguably the most entertaining game of the six-year run. That level of support was not enough to convince the NFL or the Bills to return in 2014, and the Rogers Centre has been since left off the schedule.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, for example, have not been successful on the field, but have been very successful overseas in London, routinely selling out Wembley Stadium. This proves that if the demand was there, Toronto could still be a viable option for the Bills, especially with the additional home game that has been added to the schedule every other year.
Whether Toronto can convince a Super Bowl contender to return to the region without the glamour of a new stadium, or even pursue another franchise such as Cleveland or Detroit, remains to be seen.
New Stadium or an NFL franchise
To compete with other venues in the International Series, Toronto or another region in Canada, may have to be prepared to build a venue specially geared for the NFL.
The Rogers Centre is home to the Toronto Blue Jays of the MLB, and was also home to the CFL side Toronto Argonauts before their move to BMO Field. It would be a true statement of intent to build a new stadium that could entice NFL games back to Toronto, or perhaps even tempt an NFL franchise to take up residence there on a full-time basis.
The NFL has made no secret of its desire to add a new franchise to the league, with London seemingly the top of the list to secure the rights. However, Toronto would make a lot more sense from a logistical standpoint given its proximity to the United States, much as NBA and MLB teams make the easy journey to face the Raptors and Blue Jays on a regular basis.
To secure a franchise, it would take huge investment to create a stadium to match the caliber of the new venues that are being constructed around the league, such as Allegiant Stadium or SoFi Stadium, or to equal the two new proposed venues in Buffalo and Tennessee, which have incredible aesthetics, and will certainly have all the latest features in the concourses.
Politicians in Toronto have to have an honest conversation to determine whether they can match the financial muscle seen in the United States, or attempt to lure a private investor to finance such a project. If not, then drastic improvements are required to Rogers Centre or another venue in the city to attempt to secure at least one game per season.
The Bills look lost to Toronto unless the franchise need a temporary home during the construction of their new stadium, which appears unlikely. Attracting a new franchise to play one game per season could be an option. For example, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions cannot command the same respect as a Super Bowl contender like Buffalo can. The two teams could do with additional support given their issues on the field.
For now, the NFL is off the agenda for Toronto, but it doesn’t have to be for good.