Why Toronto's NFL dream is not dead (nor imminent)
A Buffalo Bills fan cheers during a game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Rogers Centre on December 1, 2013. (Jack Boland/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)
The NFL-in-Toronto dream is not dead. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the “We’re coming to Canada!” news conference.
That’s the maple-flavoured takeaway from the league’s annual meeting, which wrapped here Wednesday morning.
We all thought, for all the world, that new Buffalo Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula would fiercely fight any attempt to ever again bring an NFL franchise to Canada’s largest city.
What with having dropped $1.4 billion on the nearby Bills. And what with Ontarians now accounting for 22% of the crowd at Bills home games, a number that continues to rise.
But we thought wrong.
“I don’t think I would have a problem with it if they could support the team,” Terry Pegula told me exclusively on Tuesday, Day 2 of the annual meeting at the Arizona Biltmore resort.
“I believe I was asked that question when I was approved as an owner, and it was an affirmative answer to the league. I said I would support it if Toronto had a franchise.”
That was no less a bombshell takeaway -- that the league wanted to ensure Toronto remains a new-market possibility down the road.
But how far down the road? And how can all the seemingly insurmountable obstacles ever be cleared to make it happen?
I asked commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday at his meeting-closing news conference to comment on Pegula’s surprise statement, and where Hogtown might stand on the NFL’s list of future market priorities.
“Terry is exactly right,” Goodell said. “He was asked (about Toronto) during the (sale) process, when he met with the finance committee, and he had the exact answer he told you. He doesn’t see that as an issue for him. His focus is on Buffalo … And he is incredibly focused on that and not concerned about Toronto.
“We continue our international development. We spend a great deal of time talking about our global opportunities here at this meeting. Toronto is an important market, but all of Canada is. And Mexico and the globe. So we’re aggressively marketing ourselves on a global basis.”
To delve deeper into the NFL’s thinking on Toronto, I interviewed three of the most prominent owners on Wednesday, all of whom are on the power-broker committee overseeing which team, or teams, relocate to Los Angeles.
All three said it’s not whether the league would like to have a team in Toronto. Rather, it’s how.
“I know everybody is interested in that market -- the Toronto market,” said Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, who’s also chair of the NFL’s finance committee.
“But at the same time, we’re not inclined to move from markets that really support their team. That’s the question. If a market gets a little tired and just can’t do it, then you have to look at other opportunities.”
Indeed, down the road -- once L.A. is figured out, and all the dominos from that fall into place -- it would be a matter of which owner of which bottom-tier franchise wants a greener pasture?
Because expansion is not a possibility in the short-term, and perhaps not even in the league’s long-term future. Every owner of note underscored that again this week, as did league executives. They think 32 teams is the perfect size. It works on and off the field -- mathematically, financially, competitively.
“We haven’t had any discussion about expansion at this point,” New York Giants owner John Mara told me. “Whether that could happen in the future? Who knows.”
Just don’t count on it.
So Toronto would have to acquire a team via relocation.
The biggest obstacle -- of many obstacles -- is the same one Los Angeles experienced over the past 20 years in its quest to reacquire an NFL team after the Rams and Raiders bolted in 1995.
That is, no one’s going to build a new stadium unless they’re sure the NFL will come, but the NFL won’t come unless they’re sure they’ll be a new stadium.
It’s a circular conundrum, about which the NFL’s decision-making owners are fully aware.
“It is circular,” McNair said. “(You) wouldn’t have to go out and build a stadium, and then try to get a team. But you’d have to be assured that the opportunity exists. And that’s just like Los Angeles, you know. You’ve got to be sure, No. 1, that you’re going to have a stadium.
“It’s fine to talk about it, but when it’s time to put the money up, will it really be there?”
Toronto’s Rogers Centre -- where the Bills played their disastrous once-a-year games from 2008-13 -- wouldn’t suffice. It becomes a baseball-only stadium when grass goes in by 2018, and in any event doesn’t meet NFL stadium criteria.
Further complicating the stadium matter is that the NFL no longer approves of third-party stadium builders -- the first party being the team owner, the second being the public sector.
So if, for example, the Jacksonville Jaguars wanted to relocate to Toronto, owner Shad Khan would have to partner with governments in Canada -- and no one else -- to build the new stadium. Well, other than the NFL can kick in a loan for up to a couple hundred mil.
Rogers, nor MLSE, nor any other private company could build the new NFL stadium unless the league makes a big exception.
Or maybe Khan, in the above example, could sell the team to Toronto billionaires and they’d buy the team and build the stadium all at once. For, oh, about three-billion. Yeah.
Could federal, provincial and municipal governments be convinced it would make economic sense for them to commit to devoting hundreds of millions to an NFL stadium? I’m told that argument can be made -- but I doubt successfully.
Hell, the Toronto Argos -- a Canadian sports institution founded in the mid-19th century -- can’t claw even $10 million from the feds to help pay for a meagre-by-comparison expansion of Toronto’s MLS stadium to give them a place to play.
Among other hurdles:
- What would happen to the CFL and the Argos, currently the three-down league’s most vulnerable franchise?
- The strength of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. greenback at the time of a potential move could prove onerous.
And, as Mara pointed out, the league insists that numerous other relocation guidelines be met.
“It’s a long road, to be sure,” Mara said.
So why are we even addressing this?
Well, first there’s this. Toronto’s NFL owner actually could recoup 100% of his lion’s-share portion of a new stadium entirely through seat licences.
I’m told that’s what Jon Bon Jovi’s “Toronto group” -- which also included Canadian billionaires Edward Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum -- planned to do if they’d got the Bills.
Secondly, consider what Clark Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, told me.
“The Canadian market is very important to us,” Hunt said. “With the Buffalo series ending in Toronto, it gives us an opportunity to step back and really re-think what the NFL should be doing in Canada. And perhaps long-term maybe (Canada should get a team). Toronto obviously would be the obvious one based on its size, but I really think we have a blank slate, and can approach it from whatever angle we think is best, both for the city and the NFL.
“It’s like a lot of things. Sometimes you just need patience. Toronto is a dynamic sports market -- a big market that can certainly support an NFL team. So you never say never. Maybe down the road something can happen.”
Added Mara: “I don’t think it’s impossible. Or out of the question.”
It’s just not imminent. Or remotely easy.
INCOMING: RALPH WILSON STATUE
Exactly one year after Ralph Wilson’s death, the Buffalo Bills on Wednesday announced that a statue of the NFL team’s devoted founder has been commissioned.
It will be placed outside the stadium in Orchard Park that bears his name.
Wilson died on March 25 of last year. He was 95. He had been the team’s only owner over its first 54 years.
“Mr. Wilson was an icon in both the professional football world and in the Western New York community,” current Bills co-owner Kim Pegula said. “This is our opportunity to honour his legacy and to allow our fans to share the game-day experience with the man who brought professional football to Buffalo.”
The statue will be displayed in the new Founder’s Plaza, northwest of The Bills Store at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Do you think Toronto will ever get an NFL team?
No, Bills were our chance
I really don't know...