Bills reach Toronto series' halfway point

TORONTO -- Outside the Bills-Toronto Series gift store at the Rogers Centre on Wednesday, a stadium employee took a noontime nap on a bench while tourists posed for pictures beneath the neighboring CN Tower.

The store was nearly empty and still had on sale Bills-Steelers shirts from Buffalo's preseason game against Pittsburgh in Toronto two years ago. And there was hardly anyone in line at the downtown stadium ticket windows for the wide-ranging number of seats still available a day before the Bills "host" the Indianapolis Colts in a preseason game.

Is anyone ready for some football?

That's been -- and remains -- the question as the Bills' five-year, eight-game series north of the border reaches its halfway point Thursday.

What officials call "teething pains" are being characterized in a far different light by critics of the Bills' venture into playing annual regular-season games outside of the United States.

A combination of high ticket prices, the economic downturn and the Bills' losing record have contributed to a lack of interest initially anticipated by the series founder, the late Ted Rogers, who died in December 2008, days before the first regular-season game of the series was played.

It was Rogers who, two years ago, proudly envisioned full houses and fans lining up for blocks to buy tickets.

Organizers won't say how many tickets are unsold for Thursday. A check at the box office found that numerous seats are available, ranging from more than $200 to $75, the lowest-priced ticket.

Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons last weekend called it "an unmitigated disaster" for both Toronto and Rogers Communications, which paid the Bills $78 million for the right to host the series. Richard Griffin, columnist for The Toronto Star, referred to it as "an epic disaster flick" on Tuesday.

Rogers Centre vice president of events Silvio D'Addario dismissed the criticism Wednesday, calling it premature and focused too much on the business end.

"I'm really excited about where the series is now. The foundation and the building blocks are in place for a successful run," D'Addario said.

And yet he couldn't avoid acknowledging some of the problems that have been encountered.

"Have there been some challenges along the way? Yeah, there have been," D'Addario said. "We're going to take into consideration what's happened over the first two years to try to guide us through for this year."

Part of that plan has already been instituted this spring, when Rogers dropped ticket prices by making more than 14,000 available -- up from about 4,700 the first year -- at under $100 at the 54,000-seat stadium.

Rogers has benefited from the games though other avenues, using its position as a league partner to land deals with the NFL and market its other media companies -- TV, radio and wireless communications.

"At the end of the day, it's NFL football. And Toronto is part of the NFL. And we're proud to have been able to do that," D'Addario said. "And whether they [critics] are talking about whether it's a financial disaster or whatever, that's for the accountants to figure out."

The Bills will play one more preseason game, in 2012, and three more regular-season games in Canada's financial capital, starting with a game against the Chicago Bears in November. Toronto, Canada's largest city and North America's fifth-largest market, is about a 100-mile drive from Buffalo and considered part of the Bills' territory.

From the Bills' perspective, the series has been a huge success. They're making nearly $9.75 million per game in Toronto, more than twice the amount the small-market franchise generates from playing home games in economically challenged Buffalo.

Their foothold in Toronto has also paid off in an increase of Ontario fans buying season tickets.

Without providing an exact number, Bills chief operating officer Russ Brandon said Ontario residents now account for about 15 percent of the team's season ticket-holders, which marks a 44 percent increase in two years.

"It's continuing to regionalize the brand and strengthening our franchise in Western New York," Brandon said.

NFL vice president of international business ventures Chris Parsons considers the Toronto series to be a success, though not perfect. The series meets the league's long-term objective to internationalize its game and has also allowed the NFL to gain a new partner in a communications giant such as Rogers.

"Clearly, with any of these things here, you have your teething troubles," Parsons said. "From what I think we've set out to do in terms of this game, we've learned a lot. I think if you stack up everything that we thought might have happened, some things are better, some things we have to work on."

At this point, officials say, there have been no talks to extend the series beyond the five-year run.

"It's premature to go down that road," Brandon said.

D'Addario agreed.

"There has not been any discussion this year whatsoever on anything other than the two games in 2010," D'Addario said. "We haven't even thought about 2011 yet."

Then again, organizers still have a long way to go.

As reporters waited outside a Toronto hotel for the Bills to arrive Wednesday, a passerby asked what celebrity was scheduled to arrive.

When informed it was the Bills, the man in his mid-50s said, "Who's that?"