What The Bills-In-Toronto Fiasco Says About The True Nature Of Canadian ‘Capitalism’

With Toronto abandoning a 2024 Summer Olympics bid and the news that the Buffalo Bills and Rogers were scuttling the Bills-in-Toronto series (supposedly for one year, but if you believe that I have ocean-front property in Saskatoon), it’s clear that the people pining for the imminent arrival of the Greatest Sports League In The World are the jockdom equivalent of Ford Nation: a dwindling group of pining for something that doesn’t exist. (Doug Ford said his mission was still to get an NFL team in Toronto. No word whether or not it was the Grey Goose talking). I blame Matt Mays.

An hour before game time during the last Bills match in Toronto, Mays, a Canadian alt-retro-rocker, bought a ticket, only to discover that man-child, oral sex enthusiast/juggalooo-in-training/Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was sitting in his seat (Unconfirmed reports said the mayor denied the accusation, saying that he has more than enough seat at home).

While sites such as Deadspin had another field day over the mayor’s continued screwups, everybody else ignored a story that won’t be overlooked by anyone in the National Football League looking at expansion. An hour before game time involving two teams from North America’s most successful sports league, anyone could have bought a ticket in the 100 level section of the Rogers Centre – the prime seating area for football. The game’s total attendance was about the same as the Canadian Football League’s Eastern Final between the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. And a massive chunk of the fans at Sunday’s game – supposedly a home game for the Bills – were cheering for the Falcons, for reasons best known to them (the Falcons were pretty much unwatchably bad in 2013).

Two generations after cable television and the NFL destroyed the Canadian Football League’s television market, and seven years after Rogers assured the world that they would be in the money with the Bills playing a home game In Toronto, paving the way for the NFL to come to Canada … and The Big Smoke is as ‘meh’ to four-down football as they apparently are to three-down football.

In an economic sense, professional sports are about the corporate world selling itself to the corporate world involving people who sweat a lot. And the NFL does this the best in North America, mostly because they don’t make as many stupid decisions as, say, the CFL (still recovering from its disastrous policy of blacking out home games for the better part of two generations, making the games unavailable on television at a time when if it isn’t on TV, it didn’t happen) or the National Hockey League (expanding into markets where there’s no real desire for the sport, such as Phoenix, Miami, Tampa and Nashville).

There’s no real reason to for the NFL to put a team in Toronto. The Canadian television market is too diffuse. Toronto isn’t the key to the Canadian television market in this era. The Toronto Blue Jays may have drawn well on Canadian television – for a while – thanks to a freakish number of free agent signings and trades which were supposed bolster the team into a pennant race. But seven years after Toronto FC came on to the Canadian sports scene, they’re in trouble at the gate (Bringing in a few ringers from Brazil and England might help Toronto FC for the first half of the upcoming season, but if they don’t win big, they’re back to square one, again). Nearly two decades after the Toronto Raptors joined the NBA, they’re kept alive thanks only to the largess of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. And in both cases their television ratings, especially outside Toronto, are about the same as those for tractor pulls and ‘strongman’ competitions. The week of the CFL’s division finals, the Raptors played the Chicago Bulls for a television audience of less than 80,000 viewers. The CFL games drew 1.9 million.

Canadian four-down football fans won’t watch a Toronto NFL team just because they’re from Toronto for the same reason they’re not watching the Raptors just because they’re from Toronto. Crap is crap, wrapping it in the flag is the last refuge of a business run by scoundrels.

So, in addition to contributing nothing to the American television contract, a Toronto-based NFL team would contribute nothing to a Canadian television contract. So why would the NFL have any interest in Toronto if it’s not going to generate any more interest or revenue that the league currently does now? One could say that it’s the headquarters for most of Canadian business, which would support such an enterprise. The NHL thought the same way about expanding to Atlanta (headquarters for many of the big businesses in the southern United States, such as Coca-Cola and The Home Depot). Look how that turned out.

A $3 billion investment in a team – whether purchasing the Bills or getting an expansion franchise, plus building a stadium (or gutting the Rogers Centre and building a new baseball-only park for the Blue Jays) – would be a waste of money in terms of a Canadian television contract. Sportsnet/Rogers and Bell/CTV/TSN probably make more money from broadcasting the NFL than what Bell/TSN makes from broadcasting the CFL, since in the NFL’s case the Canadian networks spend money on the rights, but not on the cost of production.

There’s a few NFL-in-Toronto types, mostly fanboys with no economic sense whatsoever, who blame the failure of the Bills series in TO to take off on the fact that the ‘glory teams’ – the Patriots, the Seahawks, for example – aren’t playing the Bills. But for every ‘glory team’ in the NFL, there are two that aren’t worth watching because of their poor play (last year, Atlanta was one of the better teams in the NFL, so the scheduling looked good for Toronto when this was planned). In the fanboys’ defense, it makes no sense for the Bills, a cold-weather team needing every advantage it has, to schedule a game against a team that plays in a dome to play an away game in a dome if you don’t have to.

Rogers’ Bills-in-TO fiasco (only God knows how much money Rogers lost on the exercise: since they’re a private company, they don’t have to tell anyone) cuts to the heart of the way Canadian big business operate. For all the bluster they make about ‘free enterprise,’ Big Business in Canada exists not in terms of capitalism but of corporatism, where the state is just powerful enough to tilt the rules of the economic game in their favour. Rogers made its money as a monopoly provider of cable TV in southern Ontario at a time when technology (no satellite dishes) and the Canadian Radio and Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) made them the only game in town and if you wanted cable but didn’t want Rogers, the CRTC made sure you were out of luck. And Rogers’ service was legendary crappy (remember the furor over ènegative option billing a generation ago?)

Under corporatism, customers are mere cattle. The companies harvest the revenue, but otherwise don’t care (that corporatist attitude is in full view today as Canada’s two railway companies ignore farmers’ needs and Stephen Harper’s government, with near-total representation from rural western Canada, is as impotent as a corpse). Canadian business history is littered with the wreckage of companies that were protected in the hothouse climate of Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy and didn’t know the first thing about true capitalism, from Massey-Ferguson to Eaton’s to the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool).

Right now, it appears as though the NFL-to-Toronto-deal-is-imminent story is like that of a Sasquatch sighting. There’s no evidence, nobody has actually seen it, but people believe in it. I’m thinking the only way the NFL will expand into Canada would be a merging of the CFL and the NFL (given how in the salary cap CFL the Saskatchewan Roughriders can sing Green Is The Colour all the way to the bank, I’m pretty sure Roger Goodell has noticed).

In the meantime, I double-dog dare – nay TRIPLE DOG DARE – Matt Mays to go to Mosaic Stadium in Regina in the 2014 season, and, one hour before the game time of the Roughriders playing a team as equally crappy as the Falcons were this season (say, the Edmonton Eskimos), try to buy a comparable ticket, on the east side or on the lower section of the west side stands. The women working at the Taylor Field ticket office will be laughing themselves silly until the Christmas party.

Author: Stephen LaRose

2006 winner of the Canadian Association of University Teachers's Award of Excellence in Journalism for a bunch of prairie dog stuff. Invited into the best homes in Regina. Once.

6 thoughts on “What The Bills-In-Toronto Fiasco Says About The True Nature Of Canadian ‘Capitalism’”

  1. Good riddance to any such efforts to put a stake in the CFL.

    As we well know, the real heart of that league is in Saskatchewan, but to see anyone even try to kick the Argos out of Tkaronto however ineptly still galled this prairie boy transplanted to Ottawa.

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