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Buffalo begins outsourcing football to Toronto

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Robby Takac walked into a neighborhood gym here and showed a driver's license with his old Los Angeles address.

That's where people like him are supposed to be. Takac is a certifiable rock star. He's the bassist for the Goo Goo Dolls, a wildly popular band he helped assemble in Buffalo. He could live anywhere in the world.

Eight months ago, the Goos came back home.

"Why would you move back here?" the curly haired girl at the gym asked him.

"When you talk about why you would choose to live here, the reasons don't seem legitimate when you say them out loud," Takac said. "But in your heart, there's something real here."

Buffalo isn't known as a place people move into, but a place people flee for better jobs, better weather, better futures. The folks who choose to stay here know the reputation, and the constant reminders sting a proud community that lost its swagger generations ago.

That's why they dread what's taking place in Toronto tonight. Their Buffalo Bills will play a preseason game there, not in Orchard Park, N.Y.

The Bills accepted a $78 million guarantee from Canadian media giant Rogers Communications to play five regular-season and three preseason games in the Rogers Centre through 2012. They'll play host to the Miami Dolphins in Toronto in Week 14.

The NFL and the Bills claim game outsourcing was necessary to tap into a well-heeled cosmopolitan metropolis just 100 miles north, a city that would be fourth-largest in the U.S.

"It makes perfect sense to play a game or two in Toronto to generate greater support," said Jack Kemp, the former Bills quarterback and nine-term U.S. congressman who represented the Buffalo region. "In the end, it helps keep the Bills viable, economically speaking, in Western New York.

"I think there is a league-wide commitment to keep the team viable in Buffalo, and this is part of the strategy."

Unconvinced Bills fans, however, worry this is the first step toward the inevitable. Many are resigned to a belief their team can't stay here. The Bills, who trace their roots to the American Football League's start in 1960, are the first NFL team to play annual home games outside of the United States.

"It would be a karmic kick in the nuts for this place," Takac said at his home in North Buffalo. "Remove a team like the Bills from a city like this, and it would be a devastating blow to an already struggling town."

Buffalo last week made Forbes magazine's list of America's 10 fastest-dying cities because of its plummeting population, high unemployment rate and rusted economy.

The Buffalo-Niagara region has been in a steady decline almost too long to remember when it wasn't.

"The glory days of Buffalo, when I was a kid back in the 1970s, when the steel plants were raging," said Takac, "those days are gone."

Fan support isn't an issue; corporate infrastructure is.

The Bills sold out all eight games last year at the 73,967-seat Ralph Wilson Stadium. They should sell out the schedule again this year with a season-ticket base of about 55,200. That's their third-highest total in franchise history despite failing to make the playoffs seven straight seasons.

"They've made this big deal that [the Toronto deal] is going to save the franchise," said Dan DeMarco, owner of the Big Tree Inn, a popular watering hole for players and fans next to Ralph Wilson Stadium. "The Bills franchise is solid. Every game is sold out.

"It's all about chasing corporate money."

And plenty of that can be found in Toronto.

Forbes ranked the Bills the 27th most valuable NFL team in its most recent valuations, pricing them at $821 million. They certainly would be worth more than a $1 billion in Toronto or Los Angeles.

Bills founder Ralph Wilson scoffs at the idea he ever would move the team. But Wilson will turn 90 in October. His heirs have made it clear they have no interest in running the team. So after Wilson passes, the team likely will be up for grabs.

"Ralph, and understandably so, gets nervous when people start hovering over his stadium to figure out the next step," Kemp said.

Kemp has been involved in high-level talks with Wilson, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, the late Tim Russert and other interested parties, including Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, about keeping the Bills in Buffalo.

"It's a business," Kemp said. "It's got to be viable. Finances are important, but I think the community has a huge stake in the Bills, and I plan on being a part of anybody who wants make sure that is a given.

"But I don't think it's appropriate for us to keep predicting what the next steps are."

The Bills, for their part, maintain that the team only is expanding its market, nothing else.
"This somewhat finalizes how we want to regionalize this franchise and put a stick in the ground above the border," Bills CEO Russ Brandon said in the spring, when the deal was announced. "We would be remiss if we did not try to capture over five million people within our home marketing territory . . . and try to strengthen the franchise right here in western New York."

Nobody has any definitive answers. There's so much doubt, so much mystery, so much foreboding.

And the fear among Bills fans is their withering region won't be able to compete with the promise of someone else's wealth.

"It boils down to the same old story: follow the money," Takac said "The motive is in the profits. The support here is fanatical, and that's putting it lightly. If they were to leave it would be a financial thing.

"Anything people can get behind and root for en masse is really important. Eight Sundays a year -- it would be a devastating blow for this area to not have."