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Toronto deal paying off for Bills

The Buffalo Bills say their annual excursions to Toronto are helping to grow their fan base in Southern Ontario.

Bills Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon told a crowd of fans Monday that the team continues to see concrete positive results from the five-year, eight-game deal it signed with Rogers Communications in 2008.

"After three years of that experience, we've had a 44 percent increase in season-ticket holders from Southern Ontario to One Bills Drive," Brandon said. "That's been the key, how the fans come from there, back to Ralph Wilson Stadium, come to our community and keep our organization viable and strong. That is the key to that relationship."

Brandon would not give the specific number of season-ticket holders from Southern Ontario, but he did give the big-picture perspective on the team's drawing power over the border.

"At Ralph Wilson Stadium on any given Sunday, close to 15 percent of your fan base is from Rochester, and 15 percent of your fan base is from Southern Ontario," Brandon said. "That's how we make it work."

In a crowd of 70,000, that equals about 10,000 fans from Rochester and about 10,000 from Southern Ontario.

A lot of those Southern Ontario fans come in groups.

"I'm not going to get into raw numbers, but we've always had very good success in group sales above the border," Brandon said. "We've been able to convert those sales into season tickets. That obviously brings in additional sponsor activation. It's the same model we ran in Rochester and has been proven to be very successful to this point."

When Brandon says "that's how we make it work," he means that's how the organization makes the franchise work in what is the 47th largest metropolitan area in the United States (according to the just-released Census Bureau data.)

The Buffalo metro area, in fact, is barely ahead of the Rochester metro area in population. Buffalo-Niagara stands at 1.135 million in the 2010 census. Rochester ranks 51st at 1.054 million.

"The key word for us is regionalization," Brandon told fans at the Buffalo Hyatt Regency.

"When we stood up there [in Toronto] in the press conference on the opening day of the agreement, obviously it was met with a lot of skepticism, and I understand why," Brandon said. "I think we all understand why. But as we mentioned, it's about extending the brand. We've got a population base of 5 million people above the border that's in our demographic area that's defined by the National Football League. And I think we'd be remiss if we did not work to bring that base and extend our brand to our friends up north. As we mentioned that day, one of the keys was to build this franchise regionally, and to have those results in three years, we've been very, very pleased with it."

The deal has been a winner all around for the Bills, who get an average of $9.75 million a game from Rogers Communications. That's roughly double their take in Orchard Park.

The Toronto deal runs two more seasons, through 2012. Adding another regular-season game to the Toronto deal would seem like a natural idea if the NFL expanded its regular-season schedule from 16 to 18 games. However, that proposal was not in the owners' last offer to the players in collective bargaining negotiations this month.

Asked about expanding the series, Brandon said, "We're not at that point. Our focus is on our current agreement with Rogers. That's been our focal point. We have to continue to improve the experience there with our game and continue to extend the brand, bring as many marketing platforms and business platforms back to Ralph Wilson Stadium to make this initiative as strong as it's been."

It's obvious the Bills are going to want to extend the Toronto deal beyond 2012.

"Once the CBA is put to bed, which hopefully will be in the very near future," Brandon said, "it allows us to move forward with some other initiatives that are on our docket, that have been documented -- obviously our initiatives regionally, [and] our lease agreement."

* * *

Auburn quarterback Cam Newton had his visit with the Buffalo Bills' coaches Tuesday, and the team will continue to shuttle players through One Bills Drive up until April 20, the last day predraft visits are allowed. General Manager Buddy Nix said Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert and Florida State QB Christian Ponder both will be in town later this week.

Newton had a physical with Bills doctors and trainers in the morning then met with Bills coaches. "He's a very impressive young man, and it was really a joy to be able to take him to dinner last night and to visit with him," coach Chan Gailey said on a conference call with season-ticket holders.

Newton was scheduled to visit with the Minnesota Vikings today, followed by a meeting in Cincinnati over the weekend. Other teams on Newton's schedule include Carolina, Denver, Cleveland, Tennessee and Washington.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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