Bills in Toronto Series tickets went on sale last week, this being the fourth year of a five-year, eight-game commitment between the NFL franchise and the city of Toronto. I have attended every game thus far, both preseason and regular season–and I’m not even a Bills fan. Mind you, at least half the crowd at these games, all of which were sold out, weren’t Bills fans either, with a large contingent cheering for the opposition–particularly at last year’s Bills-Bears contest, where the lower bowl was largely made up of Chicagoans.
That said, there have always plenty of locals in attendance, sporting a plethora of jerseys representing a wide variety of NFL teams. Like me, many of us are simply excited to see NFL football in Toronto, regardless of which teams are competing. Which begs the question, will Toronto ever have an NFL team of its own?
It could happen sooner than you think. Bills owner Ralph Wilson, 92, has said his estate will sell the team after he dies, which, at his age, could be any day now. And the Fabulous Ford Brothers have already said they want a team in TO–who can forget that Toronto Sun front page!? Mind you, the Rogers Centre isn’t up to Roger’s standards, and the smart money has a team going back to L.A. before Toronto gets one. But, all speculation aside, where would an NFL franchise fall amongst Toronto’s teams in terms of popularity? Let’s take a look at the list:
TOP DOGS: Toronto Maple Leafs. Anyone who’s lived in Toronto for any period of time (going on six years, myself) knows that TML is the top team in the city, and throughout most of the province, for that matter. Nevermind that the Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since I moved here in ’05, they still pack ‘em in to the overpriced seats for a pretty poor on-ice product. Should they actually accomplish something in the standings, you get the feeling that the city would explode.
NUMBER TWO AND FADING: Toronto Raptors. With a multi-culti roster representing six different countries, the Raptors, like the sport of basketball, appeal to a wider cultural, socio-economic fan base than the traditional Leafs. There are plenty of people who care about the Raptors in this city–during their last playoff appearance, in ’07, you couldn’t find a seat at a downtown bar when they were playing–but with the team falling on hard times, they’ve given us little to cheer about lately.
NUMBER THREE WITH A BULLET: Toronto FC. Soccer is the global game, and Toronto is truly a global city, so it’s no surprise that Toronto FC have been popular from the get-go, averaging over 20 thousand fans a game at a pitch that doesn’t hold much more than that. But their on-field product has not been very good, either–they’re currently one point out of last place in the Eastern Conference. The team won’t improve its place in the hearts of Torontonians until it improves its place in the standings. But after seeing the pandemonium that occurred during last year’s World Cup (or even the ’06 World Cup, for that matter), a future FC playoff run would surely spark the city.
NUMBER FOUR: Toronto Blue Jays. The city may still love its Jays, but they don’t show up in droves like they did in the 90’s. Around this time last year, it seems they were struggling to draw 15,000 fans a game, and while attendance is up by 4,000 fans a game this year, they’re still in the bottom half of the American League in that regard. Mind you, for every 20,000 fans in the seats, there are probably another 200,000 watching on TV within the GTA, but it’s hard to be optimistic when you’re stuck in a division with the two highest-spending teams in baseball, and your payroll hovers around $60-million. Barring realignment or a hard cap, I don’t see the Jays making the playoffs within my lifetime. (To be fair, I do think I will see a salary cap in baseball, though. Another cancelled World Series would probably do the trick…)
NUMBER FIVE (AND SINKING?): Toronto Argonauts. As a CFL fan, it pains me to place the Argos so low on the list, but it’s no secret that the Canadian Football League is not very popular here in Toronto. The fact is, I can walk down the streets on game day in a Calgary Stampeders jersey and not get a single sign of acknowledgement or disapproval. And my local sports bar won’t even show CFL football on TV, no matter who’s playing. There were times I walked by to see CP24 on a couple screens, but not the Argos.
Despite a somewhat-fluky 9-9 finish last year, they only averaged 22 thousand fans a game, with the stands almost-literally half-empty (52.5% capacity)–a whopping 5,000 fans below the league average. The year, with the team falling back to 2-6, they’ve drawn between 19 and 21 thousand a game–the league average, according to CFLDB, is closer t0 27K. And unlike the Jays, when 20,000 people show up to an Argos game, there are maybe another 20,000 watching on TV, tops. One could argue that this doesn’t bode well for football in Toronto–but the argument could also be made that elitist Torontonians don’t wanna settle for a “second-rate” league.
NUMBER SIX: Toronto Marlies. Those who can’t get Leafs tickets go to the Marlies. Although few of their games are televised, they could very well be more popular than the Argos. I wouldn’t know, though, since I’ve never been to a Marlies game.
NUMBER SEVEN: Toronto Rock. Do people actually pay to watch lacrosse?
So, where do I see the Toronto Bills (let’s call them that for now) on this list? Provided that they’re granted a brand-new stadium in a central location (the Mississauga Bills or the Oshawa Bills wouldn’t sell too many tickets, IMO) I think they could start off at number three or number four, and if they catch a break in the parity-prone NFL and start winning some games, they could easily ascend to number two. There’s no unseating the Leafs, though. Hell, if the city builds an 80,000 seat stadium, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Leafs started using it!