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Home away from home isn't all sweet in Bills land Even some die-hards not warm to Toronto

Doug Pagano, a longtime Bills fan from the Town of Tonawanda, has traveled to about half a dozen away games in Indianapolis, Miami and even San Antonio. But he won't be heading to Toronto on Sunday.

However, Pagano's good buddy and frequent companion to Bills away games, Rich Abbott, plans to be in the stands for the kickoff when Buffalo plays the Washington Redskins in Rogers Centre.

Four years into the five-year Bills-in-Toronto experiment, loyal Bills fans still can't agree on whether they want to support the initiative.

Even the Bills' quick start this season, at 4-2, and the team's penchant for playing down-to-the-final-gun games haven't led fans to storm the ticket windows for Sunday's game.

Officials with the Bills-in-Toronto series stopped short Tuesday of saying they expect the game to sell out. But they are confident the game won't be blacked out.

The game needs to sell out 72 hours before kickoff -- by 4 p.m. Thursday -- for the blackout to be lifted, although the deadline could be extended. Any blackout would reach into the Buffalo area.

"We're doing better than we did last year," said Silvio D'Addario, vice president of events for Rogers Centre. "Last year, the game was not blacked out, and I don't see it being blacked out [Sunday]."

That suggests it may be tough to sell out the game. Selling tickets for the Toronto games has never been easy since the 2008 start of the series, especially with the Bills mired in what's now an 11-year playoff drought.

Part of the problem is, there has never been a huge procession of Western New Yorkers streaming across the international bridges to fill the stands.

Some Bills fans just can't warm to the idea of a home game in Toronto.

Among them is Pagano, who has traveled hundreds of miles to see the Bills but won't make the short trip to Toronto. "It just wouldn't feel right," he said Tuesday. "I think Toronto is using this as a springboard for getting an NFL team. We Bills fans worry that it could be the Bills."

Abbott, his buddy, looks at it differently. Their group of friends never made plans to attend an away game this season, so he opted to catch the Bills in Toronto.

"They've been so bad for so long," said Abbott, 57, a Kenmore-based attorney. "Now they're playing entertaining ball, and it's only two hours away.

"I'm just excited about the team, and I don't have any strong feelings, one way or the other, about the Toronto experience."

The benefits for the Bills are obvious.

First, Rogers Communications has agreed to pay $78 million to the Bills to stage five regular-season and three preseason games in Toronto from 2008 through 2012. That's $9.75 million per game, or roughly twice what the Bills can gross from a sold-out game at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Also, the Bills say the games in Toronto have helped extend the reach of the franchise. Southern Ontario residents make up an average of about 15 percent of the crowd at any home game in Orchard Park.

Sunday's game comes amid speculation that any new Bills-Toronto agreement starting in 2013 would feature much more input and control from NFL officials.

Bills CEO Russ Brandon said he doesn't see the NFL running the games in Toronto.

"More enhanced, more league involvement potentially?" Brandon asked. "Absolutely."

The Bills have done a good job beating the regionalization drum, convincing fans that the team needs to sell tickets, club seats, suites and sponsorships in an expanded market, including Southern Ontario.

Yet anyone who fears that the Bills could move to Toronto or elsewhere after owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr., now 93, passes from the scene may feel funny about heading to Toronto for a home game.

As Pagano puts it, "Sharing this team with Toronto is something the people of Buffalo grudgingly accept."

Pagano helped explain the "grudgingly" part. True Bills fans, he said, are turned off by the overpriced tickets, the tailgating scene, the diminished home-field advantage and lack of intensity.

Yet they realize that the cash for the Toronto games and the chance to extend the Bills brand into St. Catharines, Hamilton and Toronto may make the Bills more viable.

The secondary ticket market Tuesday suggested that the ones for this game aren't red-hot.

Late Tuesday afternoon, there were 876 tickets available on StubHub. Ticket holders were asking for anywhere from $39.99 to about $150 per seat for Upper Bowl seats, which have a face value of $50 to $125 (Canadian). Those were the asking prices, though, not necessarily the sale prices.

What differences in the game experience will Bills fans see if they make the trek to Toronto?

Mary Owen, Bills' vice president for strategic planning, and D'Addario, from Rogers Centre, pointed to the expanded and improved tailgating experience, which will be consolidated into one large area around the stadium.

Owen compared the tailgating experience in Toronto with successful venues in other cities with domed stadiums, such as New Orleans and Atlanta. "It's not going to be the Ralph Wilson Stadium tailgating experience," she said. "We're trying to create a different experience, a great tailgating experience in an urban environment."

Bills fans shouldn't expect to see the Rogers Centre roof open, not with the forecast calling for a cloudy and windy day, with a high of about 50 degrees.

Both D'Addario and Owen cited the buzz in Toronto this week, some of it no doubt due to the Bills' improved performance.

Monday, a group of Bills players held a photo and autograph session at the New Era flagship store in Toronto.

Owen cited one important element of the crowd at that event.

"They were not just NFL fans," she said. "They were Bills fans."

email: gwarner@buffnews.com and mgaughan@buffnews.com

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