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The Toronto Initiative

Estimated reading time: 4 minute(s)

Toronto, CanadaEmotions are all over the map in Western New York these days. A few are excited by the five-year plan that will have the Buffalo Bills playing three pre-season and five regular season games in Toronto, Canada. More seem to be near paranoid that this signals the end of the nearly fifty years of Bills football in Western New York.

And who can blame them? The Buffalo Bills message boards are replete with frustrated fans following not only each move of the plan named the “Toronto Initiative”, but all of the comments made by the aging Bills’ owner, Ralph Wilson.

“I can’t speculate what’s going to happen in the future. But don’t worry. Don’t worry right now,” Wilson said at last week’s press conference in Toronto. This comment, among others, (including Wilson referring to this “Initiative” as a “trial basis”) has led many Bills fans and media pundits to speculate on the Bills future.

With the end of the current 15-year lease of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, NY coinciding with the end of this “trial” in Toronto, there are many reasons to speculate that the team could well end up north of the Border by 2013. Or even sooner, if Wilson were to die before that time is up, as he has publicly stated that the team will be sold to the highest bidder following his death.

But a closer look at who is saying what reveals that there is much more to be hopeful about for Western New Yorkers. More positive than negative regarding this Toronto Initiative.

First there are comments from the Buffalo Bills themselves. Wilson has repeatedly said – including most of his comments from last week’s press conference – that his intention all along has been to keep this team in Buffalo. “We’ve always been on record saying we were going to try to regionalize our brand north of the border,” said Bills new Chief Operating Officer Russ Brandon. “We think this is another step in keeping our franchise financially viable in the Buffalo marketplace.”

The Bills have already begun to regionalize the team by moving their annual training camp to St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY. This has been a big success according to the team. Toronto is merely the “next step” as Brandon says.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (a native Western New Yorker) was asked about the Toronto Initiative in a press conference and responded by saying the Bills “very thoughtfully” put this plan together, and carried it out. He has said the NFL is not looking to expand right now, and said the Bills would play a “limited number of games” in Toronto over the next five years. Granted, five years is a long way off, but his words have to be reassuring to Bills fans. (And it can’t hurt that he is a native of the area, and so, a Bills fan!)

Add to these voices the somewhat public rumors that former Bills Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly has designs on buying the Bills when they become available. Kelly is rumored to be building a team of people – including perhaps former Buffalo Bills Thurman Thomas and Steve Tasker, among others – to purchase the Bills following Wilson’s passing.

Western New York billionaire, and current Buffalo Sabres’ owner, Tom Golisano is one potential investor in Jim Kelly’s plan. This past week Golisano was interviewed during a Sabres’ game and said, “If the situation arises, I would do what I can to try to keep the team in the area.” This again buoyed Buffalo fans hopes that this talk of losing the Buffalo Bills was just that. Talk.

In the end, Wilson is right, we can not know what will happen in the future. But it’s also true that worrying about the future doesn’t change anything either. Bills fans can worry that the team will move (I think that has been a fear of Bills fans since I moved to Buffalo back in 1986!) or listen to the voices of the people who really matter. Sports writers can say what they want, and fearful fans can say what they want, but the people who make the decisions are saying the Bills are staying in Western New York.

And, for now, that’s who I’m going to listen to.

Related Article: 10/25/07 (BBR)