Buffalo Shuffle

Can a deal with Toronto save an American football team—and its decaying hometown?

Migrant workers: the Bills at a preseason "home" game in wealthy Toronto
(Photo credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

The quirky 1998 indie movie Buffalo ’66, famed for its cameos (“Hey, wasn’t that guy in the bowling alley Jan-Michael Vincent?”), shows some Buffalo residents as stuck psychologically in the mid-1960s, when the city’s heavy industry was mighty and the Buffalo Bills were football’s best team. I spent my boyhood in Buffalo and its Pleasantville-like border suburb, Kenmore; the area then thrived, and the magnificent Bills were its embodiment. As a 13-year-old, I attended the New Year’s Day, 1967, contest between the Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs to determine which would face the Green Bay Packers in the inaugural Super Bowl. The game was at War Memorial Stadium, since demolished, a majestic Works Progress Administration edifice built by masons and known locally as the Rockpile; it stood right in the midst of the city, with no parking lots, because when the place was built fans arrived on foot or by streetcar. The sense of civic excitement was keen on that 1967 day; the Bills were the defending American Football League champions. But Dudley Meredith fumbled the opening kickoff, giving the Chiefs an easy touchdown, then—no, I can’t go any further into that awful memory. Forty-one years later, looking up an account of the game, just coming across the name Dudley Meredith sent a chill along my spine. Kansas City met Green Bay in the first Super Bowl, and for Buffalo—the team and the place—it’s been downhill since.

All true sons and daughters of Buffalo share a magic-realist belief that the city’s fate and the Bills’ are intertwined. Since that long-ago loss, Buffalo’s steel and grain-milling industries have gone from boom to bust. The city’s population has shrunk by nearly half. Abandoned grain silos line the urban lakefront like timber Paul Bunyan forgot to harvest. Had the Bills won the first Super Bowl, none of this would have happened!

Next month, in the first regular-season NFL game ever to be played in Canada, the Bills will host the Miami Dolphins at the Rogers Centre, in flourishing Toronto. Under a recently signed agreement, the Bills will play a regular-season “home” game in Toronto, about 100 miles by car from Buffalo, in each of the next four years as well.

The Rogers Centre deal is widely seen as the first step toward an eventual move of the Bills to Ontario, and a “last one turn off the lights” moment for Buffalo. The Bills’ owner, Ralph Wilson, who recently turned 90, is fiercely loyal to the city, but someday Wilson will cross the river, and between estate taxes and inheritances to his three daughters, the Bills may need to be sold when he passes. The Toronto communications magnate Ted Rogers, owner of the Rogers Centre, is an obvious potential customer.

But there’s another, more hopeful possibility: the current arrangement might actually help keep the Bills in Buffalo—and perhaps even catalyze the city’s revival.

A long-term deal by which the Bills play in both Toronto and Buffalo might make economic sense. Television revenue is the same for all NFL teams, meaning there’s no small-city penalty for games in Buffalo; and despite its depressed economics, Buffalo is consistently in the top 10 for NFL attendance. If some games were played in Canada, the cost of season tickets in Buffalo would decline because of a smaller home slate, keeping season tickets affordable and attendance high. And the team would add a fan base in North America’s fifth-largest city, giving itself two sets of supporters—one set quite prosperous, paying for tickets and merchandise with the suddenly valuable Canadian dollar.

The Bills could help forge mutual affection between the cities—even a regional identity. Buffalo’s civic promotion has generally reached southward; in this newly globalized world, it should reach northward, toward a country that is as underappreciated among nations as Buffalo is among cities.

Connections to cosmopolitan, multi­cultural Toronto might change Buffalo’s image from backward-­focused to wave-of-the-future. Toronto is growing by leaps and bounds, and some portion of the growth may already be spilling over; most of the immigrants to Buffalo in recent years were Canadian. Buffalo offers urban living free of traffic jams and boasts one of the nation’s last under­developed stretches of premium waterfront. During its City of Light heyday, when Buffalo was the first electrified metropolis, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frederick Law Olmsted, and other fabled names designed homes and parks. In the lovely Delaware Park area, magnificent Beaux Arts homes sell at exceedingly low prices compared with homes in elite U.S. cities—or in Toronto.

So long as the Bills keep a foot in the city, they keep alive the dream of a Super Bowl win—a hope that an infusion of Loonies (Canadian dollars) might sustain. And should the Bills win the Super Bowl, Buffalo will return to national prominence. I don’t just think this will happen, I know it will.