The Buffalo Bills’ front office for the first time Wednesday publicly acknowledged the obvious about its annual excursion to Toronto: The game leaves a lot to be desired.
Those weren’t the exact words from Russ Brandon, the Bills’ president and chief executive officer, but that was the message.
“One of the things I said … on Jan. 1 of this year was I was going to review every phase of this operation, and this series comes within that framework,” Brandon said on his weekly WGR radio show. “I’m going to look at it very closely.”
“Obviously, Toronto has been very positive for us down here,” Brandon said. “We’ve had great growth in the Southern Ontario marketplace the last five years. Back here at Ralph Wilson Stadium that has been a big positive. It has been a challenged market there. And certainly has not translated into enough wins for us there.”
Brandon’s comments served as an acknowledgement to fans, as well as his own players, that the team has yet to establish a noticeable home-field advantage in Toronto’s Rogers Centre.
However, the Bills still have four years remaining on their deal to play in Canada, and there is no expectation inside the organization they are going to try to break the deal.
The club’s contract with Rogers Communications Inc. is a money-maker. Over the first five years, the Bills got an average of about $9.75 million a game, roughly double what they would gross in Orchard Park. The new deal is for less, but the exact terms have not been released.
It’s hard to imagine the team paying to get out of a profitable contract. Furthermore, Brandon himself was in charge of the business side of the Bills’ organization when the Toronto deal originally was struck in 2007, and he was in charge of the entire organization when it was extended on Jan. 30. Mary Owen, Bills executive vice president for strategic planning, has worked hard on the relationship between the club and Rogers, the Canadian telecommunications giant.
“I’m going to look at everything,” Brandon said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
The Bills fell to 1-5 in regular-season games in Toronto with Sunday’s 34-31 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The atmosphere in the dome was not good for the Bills.
Announced attendance was only 38,969, at least 10,000 shy of a sellout.
There were roughly as many fans wearing Falcons jerseys as those wearing Bills jerseys. Falcons fans were making a lot of noise when the Bills’ offense was facing key third-down situations in the second half.
Bills players said it didn’t affect them. But numerous players have admitted over the years that they lose a home-field edge by not playing in Orchard Park.
Officials of Rogers Communications declined the chance to comment when contacted by The News.
Meanwhile, Brandon also said that selling out games in Western New York remains a heavy lift for the franchise.
“It’s also about being viable,” Brandon said about the Toronto deal. “That’s one of the things we’ve talked about for many years here. Look at it from the standpoint of where we’ve been this year on the ticket side. We’ve taken a game out of the market, which is essentially taking 70,000 seats out of the market, and have truly only sold out two of our home games.”
“We’ve manufactured sellouts in the other four or five,” Brandon said, referring to the fact the team had to buy up tickets to ensure the lifting of the local television blackout for four games.
“We’re trying to find ways to obviously keep this team viable, which we’ve done a very good job at, and this series has obviously contributed to that,” Brandon said. “With that being said, nothing comes above winning. When I took over the reins on Jan. 1, I said that was the No. 1 focus, and that will be the No. 1 focus. And that’s one of the reasons that this will be reviewed in a grand manner.”
The Bills (4-8) are headed to a 14th straight non-playoff finish.
Brandon said there still were about 20,000 tickets left for the last Orchard Park home game, against Miami in 17 days.
“I don’t feel good about it,” Brandon said of a sellout. “That’s a long way to go in two weeks.”
Bills coach Doug Marrone said he viewed an evaluation of the Toronto deal as standard operating procedure.
“Everything that we do after the season is going to be evaluated, OK?” Marrone said. “I don’t think that’s not the norm when you look at a business model of how to do things. And we tend to forget that this is a business that we’re in, it’s not fantasy. So every single thing that we do will always be looked at and evaluated.
“My job is to win football games,” Marrone said, “whether it’s at home, in Toronto, on the road, whatever we have to do.”