The Buffalo Bills got a stamp of approval from the NFL on Tuesday to finalize a new five-year agreement to play games in Toronto.
The decision came in a vote of the NFL's nine-member International Committee, which reviewed plans for the Bills to continue playing one regular-season game a year in Toronto's Rogers Centre through 2017. The original five-year deal between the team and Rogers Communications runs out after this season.
The Bills' game in Toronto this season is against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 16.
The positive vote was expected. Both the Bills and Rogers Communications repeatedly have stated a desire to continue their partnership, and a completion of the deal is expected soon. Other NFL owners are happy to approve a measure that increases the Bills' revenue.
"The International Committee's decision to approve the continuation of our games in Toronto is a crucial step in our ongoing efforts to regionalize our franchise," said Bills Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon in a statement. "As we have stated on many occasions, the regionalization process remains vital to keeping our franchise strong in Western New York. We are continuing our discussions with Rogers Communications on a new deal and remain optimistic that we can come to an agreement in the near future."
The new deal is certain to be less lucrative for the Bills than the first five-year, eight-game contract, which called for Rogers to pay the Bills $78 million, or roughly twice per-game what the Bills gross from a game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. (The preseason game scheduled for Toronto this year instead will be played in Orchard Park.)
Nevertheless, the partnership is a financial bonus for the Bills and maintains the team's footprint in Canada. The Bills have grown their Canadian fan base since the start of the series. Southern Ontario has crept past Rochester in the Bills' regionalization effort, accounting for a bit more than 15 percent of the fans at games in Orchard Park.
Rogers Communications is one of Canada's largest communication companies, with wireless phone, cable television, broadcasting, publishing and sports divisions. The company had revenues in 2011 of $12.4 billion. Rogers operates the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team and has a deal in place to gain co-controlling interest in hockey's Maple Leafs and basketball's Raptors.
The deal allows Rogers to keep direct ties to North America's most popular sport. Rogers gets to promote and market the NFL across its many business platforms.
Rogers is expected to further scale back ticket prices for Bills games in the future. Each of the four previous Bills regular-season games in Rogers Centre were announced as sellouts, but it's widely believed the company had to buy up tickets to ensure the sellouts. The average ticket price for the Bills games in the first year of the deal was $183. That did not count the best seats, those between the 20-yard lines in the lower bowl. Most of those originally were priced at $295 a game. Rogers lowered ticket prices by an average of 17 percent after the first year of the deal.
Capacity at Rogers Centre for football is between 52,000 and 53,000. The announced attendance at the last four regular-season games was, starting with the 2008 game: 52,134, 51,547, 50,746 and 51,579. Last season was the first in which the Bills had a winning record entering the Toronto game. Buffalo beat Washington in Rogers Centre to improve to 5-2.
Mary Owen, Bills executive vice president of strategic planning, is the Bills' point person in striking the extension. She is on the nine-member NFL International Committee. She serves on the panel along with team owners Clark Hunt (Kansas City), Jeffrey Lurie (Philadelphia), Rita LeBlanc (New Orleans), George McCaskey (Chicago) and John York (San Francisco), plus Tampa Bay co-chairman Joel Glazer, Pittsburgh president Art Rooney, and San Diego president Dean Spanos.