TORONTO – He seemed straight out of the old "Saturday Night Live" skit about Da Bears. He was a big, beefy guy in a Brian Urlacher(notes) jersey. Half of his face was painted blue, the other half orange.
"Nova Scotia," he said.
Welcome to the Bills Toronto Series, where Canadian football fans can taste the NFL experience and the city can showcase itself as a potential NFL market. For now, it seems like a foreign fit.
There is no question Canada has an appetite for the NFL. Take our Bears fan, Jonathan Duthie, 36, from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He moved from England when he was about 8. He fell in love with the 1985 Bears, the Super Bowl-shuffling champions, and has been devoted to them ever since. He has traveled to places like Indianapolis and New England to see the NFL live.
"Every game I've gone to in the States has been amazing," said Duthie, as he rode the subway down to the stadium Sunday morning. "The atmosphere has been amazing."
But Duthie had heard the atmosphere wasn't so amazing in Toronto, and indeed it wasn't Sunday for the Buffalo Bills' 22-19 loss to the Chicago Bears at the Rogers Centre, home to the Toronto Blue Jays and the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts.
The cavernous stadium was so quiet in the third quarter – even though the game was tied at 7 – you could hear the Bills' cheerleaders clearly in the third deck. Even though the Bills were behind by only three and had the ball near the end of the game, many among the announced crowd of 50,746 had already left.
The Bills were the home team, but this certainly didn't feel like Ralph Wilson Stadium. Though the players were polite about it, they couldn't help but notice it was "a little bit quiet," as running back Chester Taylor(notes) put it, especially in key situations. "Back in Buffalo, third downs, they know how to get rowdy," cornerback Tim Jennings(notes) said. They also couldn't help but notice all the Bears fans, who outnumbered – or at least equaled – the Bills fans.
"There were more Bears fans than I expected, I guess I can say that," said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes), whose Bills host the Detroit Lions next week in Orchard Park, N.Y. "It's been a really long time since we've played at the Ralph, and we're really excited to get back there and play in front of our fans."
If anyone felt at home, it was Bears defensive end Israel Idonije(notes), who was born in Nigeria but grew up in Brandon, Manitoba, and played for the University of Manitoba Bisons. He blocked an extra point in the third quarter to keep the Bills from tying the game at 14.
"It was like a home game with a lot of Bears fans in the crowd," Idonije said. "A lot of Canadian kids dream to play in the CFL. That's their ceiling. I hope they look at me and say, 'Hey, if we just continue to work hard, we can play in the NFL,' and set no limits for themselves."
The late Ted Rogers, founder of Rogers Communications, had big dreams when his company agreed to pay the Bills $78 million to play eight games in Toronto – three preseason, five regular-season. When the deal was announced in February 2008, he talked about fans lining up for blocks to pay big money for tickets.
That didn't happen. The fans balked at prices that averaged almost $200 that year. The prices have declined since, with more than 14,000 seats available for less than $100 this year. Scalpers were asking for less than face value outside, and some fans didn't pay a dime.
"To be quite honest, I got the tickets for free," said Ryan Scott, 27, from Hamilton, Ontario. "I would rather pay to go to Buffalo than watch it here."
The problem is that the Bills are not Toronto's team – even if they usually play only a couple of hours down the highway on the Queen Elizabeth Way, even if some hope they will move north someday.
There was no unified feeling in the stands. For all the Bears and Bills jerseys there were Sunday, there were Steelers jerseys and Seahawks jerseys and Colts jerseys and Packers jerseys. Pick anyone of the 32 NFL teams, and you probably could find someone wearing something representing it. Scott wore a Dallas Cowboys hat – America's Team – and a Montreal Canadiens sweatshirt.
Canadians are free to root for whichever NFL team they wish, and why would they root for the Bills? This isn't the O.J. Simpson era or the Jim Kelly era or even the Doug Flutie era. The Bills are 0-8 and will miss the playoffs for the 11th straight season. They are 0-3 in regular-season games in Toronto. Yes, they're O-for-Canada.
"We've got to play better and be a better football team," said Bills coach Chan Gailey, "so that these people become rabid Bills fans and we fill it with Bills people, not just people that want to see NFL football."
Another common complaint: no tailgating. Fans can't barbecue like they do in Kansas City or grill brats like they do in Green Bay. There was a sponsored party with a band and beer near the Rogers Centre, but it was fenced in and felt forced. With a large inflatable football and NFL logo outside, the overall vibe was more promotional event than sporting event.
"I don't think we have the culture for it," said Kelvin Wheeler, 53, a self-described long-suffering Bills fan from Toronto. "I think they'd have to loosen the restrictions. People are going to drink at football games. They want to set up their barbecues. They want to have a good time, throw the football around."
The Bills have three more games scheduled in this series – regular-season games the next two years, plus a preseason game in 2012. Rogers vice chairman Phil Lind reiterated to the Associated Press last week that the company would like to extend the series, though there have been no formal talks with the Bills. Rogers would like to play a role in luring the franchise to Toronto.
You know the Bills and the NFL will extend the series or move the team only if it makes the best business sense, and there are all kinds of obstacles to relocation – from the potential need for a new stadium, to Los Angeles' lack of a franchise, to U.S. television contracts.
And though the Bills Toronto Series has been fun for some and interesting for others, it hasn't given definitive answers to important questions. If Toronto landed its own NFL team, would all those fans unite behind it? Would the culture change? Would the stadium rock and roll on third down and become a real home-field advantage? Or would Toronto just be the lone market where the NFL ranks behind the NHL?
"Toronto's a funny city," Scott said. "I think a lot of the die-hards are the same mindset. They'd rather see it in Buffalo in the open-air stadium and have a tailgate party and all that kind of thing. …
"Toronto, it's almost Leafs or nothing. Unless you've got a contender – unless the Jays are winning, the Raptors are winning, or whatever – they don't draw. And so I don't see why football would be any different."