COMMENTARY | You've got to hand it to Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood. He repeated publicly what fans have been saying all along.
Wood, a former No. 1 draft pick in his fourth year with the Bills, pulled no punches in a radio interview this week when addressing "home" games at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
"I think that Toronto series has turned into pretty much a joke," Wood said, according to a Buffalo News report of his interview with 97 Rock. "I think they started it hoping that we'd have a lot of fan support in Toronto. We have none."
Wood's assessment veers sharply from the company line about the series, which began in 2008 and paid the Bills nearly $80 million for the five regular season and two preseason games moved to Toronto from Ralph Wilson Stadium over a five-year period.
As recently as last week, safety George Wilson was on the "Shredd and Ragan Radio Show," stressing that the Bills were ambassadors of the game and helping to win over international fans. The front office has continually pointed to the series as a way to expand the Buffalo market and grow the team's fan base.
And that's true, to an extent. Buffalo's market has grown since the club made regionalization in Rochester and Southern Ontario a cornerstone of its business plan in 1999. Residents of those areas account for about 15 percent of the season-ticket base.
But last Sunday's 50-17 loss to Seattle highlighted a couple of key problems with the Bills in Toronto arrangement, namely the fact that the Bills continue to give up at least one home game annually.
After five years, fan excitement for these games is minimal. Fans in Buffalo dislike having to travel across an international border for a "home" game and then not be able to tailgate when they get there. Plus, it's expensive.
The fans who do show up usually aren't Bills diehards, making for a neutral, passionless crowd inside a neutral, passionless stadium. That sterile environment - an atmosphere that would never be confused with the raucous crowds at the Ralph - is as uninspiring for the players as it is for the fans, apparently.
"You're making a team from out west travel, and then you give them the comfort of a dome, and you don't make them play in our stadium," Wood said. "We have no home-field advantage allowed. We travel, too. I just think it's a joke.
"And it's a bad atmosphere for football. I mean, nobody wants to play there. I guess for opposing teams it beats the hell out of going in somebody else's stadium and dealing with a bunch of crowd noise."
"I don't think it's turned out they way we wanted, and I hope we don't renew it. That sucked."
It's hard to argue with Wood.Yes, the series makes the Bills a lot of money. It does showcase the team internationally. it's part of a plan to expand one of the NFL's smallest markets. Make no mistake, the series will be renewed, and it will continue into the near future.
But at what cost? It not only alienates the local fans, who lose out on one more Sunday at the Ralph (two if you count preseason), but it negates any home-field advantage for a team that desperately needs it. The very idea of taking a December game out of the elements in a cold-weather city and moving it indoors removes the one competitive advantage your franchise actually has. In other words, the Bills are reducing their chances of victory in order to grow their fan base. Is it any wonder why the Bills have gone 1-4 in these games and 13 years without a playoff berth?
The financial realities of the NFL being what they are, the franchise may not be able to last in Buffalo without regionalization. But if the Bills are going to stick around and keep this arrangement, we shouldn't expect them to get much better while they're here.
And we don't need Eric Wood to tell us that.
Patrick Broadwater is a freelance writer living in Buffalo. His work has appeared at The Hockey News, The Good Men Project and several newspapers and magazines. Follow him on Twitter @PSBroadwater.
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