Are Bills' Days in Buffalo Numbered?

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Are Bills' Days in Buffalo Numbered?

The Bills' agreement to play eight "home" games in Toronto (five regular-season contests, three preseason) over the next five years can only be viewed as an exploratory sortie into potentially bigger and greener pastures.

After all, Buffalo is one of the smallest media markets in the NFL.  In the midst of a league-wide building boom, the Bills are being left further behind.

Just how soon will the Buffalo Bills become the Toronto Bills?

The Bills' owner's reply was hardly reassuring.

"What am I going to say to the fans of Buffalo?" said Ralph Wilson. "I'm going to say, 'Hey, I can't speculate. I can't speculate what's going to happen in the future. But don't worry. Don't worry right now.' "

Don't worry right now? But do worry in the very near future?

Given the opportunity to clarify his intentions regarding the team's future in Buffalo, Wilson, during the press conference announcing the Bills' Toronto arrangement, instead painted a less-than-rosy picture.

"I can answer that by saying the town of Buffalo, and it's no secret, is diminishing in size," Wilson said. "Buffalo is dwindling in population, in jobs. People don't have jobs, and they move out of Buffalo.  They move out of Western New York. So I would say to keep the team there, a number of years ago we decided we had to regionalize. We had to go out into Western New York because the team could not be maintained in Buffalo, and I did not want to have the team leave Buffalo because they still have hundreds of thousands of very passionate fans. I thought it would be a death knell to the city of Buffalo."

But at the end of the day, it's not Wilson's job to save the moribund economy of Buffalo, or Western New York, for that matter. Canada is becoming an increasingly attractive venue, particularly Toronto, its financial capital.

Add to the equation the fact that Ted Rogers, the owner of the baseball Blue Jays and Rogers Communications, Inc., is the third-richest man in Canada, and it's not difficult to see the Bills change hands in the coming years.

The Bills' playing in Toronto has the blessing of the NFL, which is also trying to increase its international appeal with zeal.

While the league has talked about relocating or expanding teams to places like London and Mexico City, Canada actually makes much more sense because of its combination of proximity and cultural ties to the United States.

Two other factors are in play here.

First, Wilson is 89 and has indicated that the team would be sold to the highest bidder upon his death. Second, the Bills' stadium deal expires after the 2012 season, the final year of the five-year, eight-game package with Toronto.

As for the immediate future, Buffalo's season ticket holders will have to pay for only eight games, instead of 10, for the 2008 season. The tickets to be played at the 53,000-seat Rogers Centre are to be sold separately via the web site billsintoronto.com.

Just to provide an idea of the economic status of these two cities, and the declining value of the U.S. dollar vis-à-vis a resurgent Canadian dollar: A typical seat at Ralph Wilson Stadium costs about $46. At Rogers Centre, they expect to fetch around $250 U.S.

"This is going to be a great partnership," Rogers said. "We're going to charge high rates. We're going to have all the seats sold, standing room only out to Queen Street, and the best is yet to come."

For Toronto, maybe.

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