George Wilson: Toronto's not the Ralph

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills safety George Wilson regards Toronto as a nice and diverse place to visit. Just don't ask him to get excited about playing "home" games there.

"It's not a home game," Wilson said before practice Wednesday.

Making sure not to knock the city or its residents, Wilson focused his concerns on questioning the loyalty and passion of fans who have attended Buffalo's games at Toronto over the past three years.

"Is that a question?" Wilson said, when asked about the support the Bills receive at Toronto's downtown Rogers Centre. "The fan support in Toronto is a night-and-day difference from what we have in Buffalo. For the most part, it's a show. You see just as many jerseys for the opposing teams as you do the Bills. They cheer for any big play regardless of whichever team makes it."

Wilson added it's impossible to replicate the raucous environment inside or outside Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, and expressed concern over the Bills losing an edge in home-field advantage.

"It's definitely not the same hostile environment that teams have to deal with coming into the Ralph out here," he said. "This is no knock on the citizens of Toronto. We know a large percentage of our fan base comes from Canada, and we're appreciative of their support. But at the same time, the environment is just not the same. That's just facts."

Wilson went public with his frustrations as the Bills (4-2) come out of their bye week off to prepare to host the Washington Redskins (3-3) in Buffalo's annual regular-season game north of the border. Aside from the lack of fan support, Wilson also noted the players pay an additional Canadian tax -- over and above a New York state tax -- to play in Toronto.

The Bills-In-Toronto series now is in its fourth year after the franchise reached a five-year, $78 million pact with Toronto-based media and communications giant, Rogers Communication, to play eight games -- five regular season and three preseason -- in Canada's largest city and financial capital.

In becoming the NFL's first team to play annual games outside the United States, the Bills consider the deal as part of the small-market franchise's bid to expand its market and draw additional revenue out of Toronto, located about a 90-minute drive from Buffalo.

The deal already has paid off for the Bills. They get about $9.75 million per game in Toronto, more than twice than they generate at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills also have reported a large bump in season-ticket sales from fans across the border, who now represent about 15 percent of the team's base.

The downside has proven to be a general lack of interest the Bills have received in Toronto. They play in a domed facility that's better suited for baseball, with the stands further removed from the playing field. Overpriced tickets -- a majority of them more than $200 -- have made it difficult to draw fans to the 54,000-seat facility. And many who have shown up either are NFL fans, who root for other teams, or are there to see the opposing team.

Playing under a roof also has neutralized the Bills' home-field advantage when it comes to the elements. That was particularly apparent in 2008. While it was snowing in Buffalo, the Bills were essentially knocked out of playoff contention following a 16-13 loss to the warm-weather Miami Dolphins in the cozy, dry confines of the Rogers Center.

The Bills are 0-3 in regular-season games at Toronto, though they've won both preseason games. The series is scheduled to end next year with a preseason and a regular-season game, though both sides have expressed interest in renewing the deal. The NFL also favors the series because it helps the Bills financially while also boosts the league's exposure in Canada.

One difference from previous years is that the game Sunday marks the first time the Bills head to Toronto with a winning record.

"Every time we've been up there we've lost, now it's a new year and we feel like we can give them a win and something to cheer about and something to love the Bills about," receiver Steve Johnson said. "This has given us a chance to expand the NFL out in Canada and I believe the fans will be excited about it, and cheering on the Bills with how our season is going."

Redskins coach Mike Shanahan took a cautious approach on the Bills lacking a home-field edge.

"If it is, obviously, that's always a positive," Shanahan said. "But I would think with Buffalo's record, and how well they're playing, they'll have a great fan base."

Though several Bills have grumbled about Toronto not being such a home sweet home, Wilson has become the most vocal critic.

"It's not ever going to be the most ideal situation because there's such a strong connection between our organization and the people here in Buffalo," Wilson said. "The expectation is there's going to be just as many cheers for the Redskins as there will be for us. We just have to make sure we're the ones making the big plays so there's no cheers for the other team."