By JOHN WAWROW
The Associated Press
Friday, October 19, 2007; 6:49 AM
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills intend to play a few games in Canada, eh? That's the plan after the Bills on Thursday announced they are seeking approval to play a preseason and at least one regular-season game in Toronto. It's part of the franchise's attempt to expand its market base beyond western New York.
"The team hopes to capitalize on the increasing interest of fans in the Canadian market by playing a regular-season game in Toronto," the Bills announced in a release.
The Bills hope to play a preseason game at Toronto next summer, with plans to play a regular-season game as early as 2009. The games would be played at Rogers Center, a downtown stadium with a retractable roof that serves as home to baseball's Blue Jays and the Canadian Football League Argonauts.
The Bills require both county and state approval to play "home games" outside of Ralph Wilson Stadium as a condition of their lease, which runs through 2012. The lease requires the team to play half its preseason and all regular-season home games at the Orchard Park facility.
The team began the process by sending a letter of request to Erie County on Wednesday.
The Bills would also need approval from the NFL, considered a formality with the league already scheduling games in international markets. In two weeks, Miami and the New York Giants will play at London's Wembley Stadium in the first NFL game outside North America. In 2005, Arizona and San Francisco played in Mexico City in the first regular-season game outside the United States.
Toronto is the next logical choice as part of the Bills' expansion plans. Canada's largest metropolitan center is a 90-mile drive from Buffalo, boasts a large corporate base that can translate into additional marketing revenue, and the team also draws an average of 15,000 Canadian fans to its home games.
The Bills also consider this a chance to lure Toronto companies to purchase corporate suites at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills currently have three suites unsold and, next season, will unveil new prime suites as part of a plan to relocate the existing press box.
The Bills stressed the games at Toronto are part of their regionalization plans and should not be considered a first step for the franchise's relocation. The Bills noted the success they've enjoyed since moving their training camp in 2000 to Rochester, where they've taken advantage of the city's corporate base.
Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who turned 89 on Wednesday, has maintained he has no intention of selling or relocating the franchise. The team's future remains unclear because Wilson has no plans to keep the franchise in his family once he dies, leaving the door open for a new owner to move the team.
Toronto newspapers have published stories speculating whether the city can be a viable NFL market, and most often mention the Bills as a prime candidate.