NFL 'experience' comes to Canada

TORONTO: Rogers Communications is selling more than just tickets to the Toronto games of the Buffalo Bills. It is selling the NFL experience to Canadians, according to Adrian Montgomery, director of football operations at Rogers.

TORONTO: Rogers Communications is selling more than just tickets to the Toronto games of the Buffalo Bills. It is selling the NFL experience to Canadians, according to Adrian Montgomery, director of football operations at Rogers.

He said that's why the first Bills game in Toronto, an exhibition against the Pittsburgh Steelers on August 14, features free events before and after the game. The Samsung Bills Toronto Kickoff Party will be held the day before between 4pm and 10pm at Dundas Square in downtown Toronto, which will include contests, a pep rally, NFL video highlights, and a free concert by chart-topping Canadian band Hedley. After the game, there will be a tailgate party. The events are being handled entirely in-house.

“The mandate from senior Rogers' executives is we aren't just putting on eight games over five years,” said Montgomery. “While 50,000 people can sit in the Rogers Centre to watch the games, we want the family of four in [nearby] Pickering to experience the power and excitement of the NFL. One of our big, big objectives is to put on free events.”

The exhibition game will be followed by a regular-season game versus the Miami Dolphins on December 7. While the regular-season game is almost sold out, he said a few thousands tickets remain for the pre-season exhibition. The Toronto series is part of a $78-million deal between the Bills and Rogers, which will see a regular season game played in Toronto each year until 2012, plus three exhibitions.

Fans and media have speculated that the Toronto series is the first step in the small-market team making a permanent move to Toronto (currently, the Buffalo Bills have a lease on Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, NY through to 2012). But perhaps fearing such an outcome, fans in Buffalo have scooped up tickets. The Buffalo Bills said they have sold 54,200 season tickets this year, the highest number since a record 57,132 were sold in 1992.

Montgomery said the initial communication challenge was making residents in Buffalo understand the deal was also good for them (in terms of tapping into Toronto's fan base and corporate wealth). At the same time, he said Rogers wanted to make it clear to fans of the Canadian Football League (CFL) that it wasn't trying to bury that league.

“When people realize our commitment is just a little over a game a season, it is not as threatening as on first thought,” said Montgomery. “This deal is so one-of-a-kind — the fact that a team is splitting its schedule, whatever the ratio might be, between two countries and two cities.

Whenever you do such a bold and innovative deal, there is skepticism as to what your motivations are; that's just a natural by-product of it.”

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