It’s not that easy, Mister Rogers

Let me say up front: I do not want the Buffalo Bills playing games in Toronto or, gods forbid, actually moving here. I’ve always had a soft spot for them, but I’m a Canadian Football League supporter, and don’t want the hyper-corporatist American league anywhere near my historic Canadian sports league. Bring the Bills here, and it kills the CFL; don’t let spin doctors brainwash you otherwise. I don’t take kindly to American organizations killing my Canadian institutions for profit.

However, all that being said – I attended the first Bills-in-Toronto exhibition game last  night.

What?? Traitor! Hypocrite! I can just hear you.

Let me explain: the tickets were free, through Rogers Wireless, my cable/phone/internet provider. I went because I wasted no money and Rogers footed the bill. And I wanted just one inside view, to understand what exactly I was opposing.

Ted Rogers, owner of the Rogers media empire, the Toronto Blue Jays, and most recently the Rogers Centre (i.e. the Skydome, which the man slapped his name on, despite community preferences), really wants an NFL franchise in Toronto. But since the powers-that-be aren’t seriously considering it yet, one suspects this Bills-in-Toronto series – eight exhibition and regular season games in five years – is another way of getting a toe in the door.

This first game was hyped energetically, with a pep rally in Dundas Square the night before the game, including current Bills players as well as past greats like quarterback Jim Kelly, wide receiver Andre Reed, and running back Thurman Thomas. Rogers gave free tickets to many of its customers, and in fact, according to this article, massive numbers of free tickets were distributed to ensure the stadium was full. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been.

I noticed scalpers with piles of tickets, all along the route to the stadium. They weren’t making much money, though; many were selling for half price. And no wonder. My own tickets, nosebleed seats, would have cost $170 each! Lower single seats went for $500 or more. I guess we have deep pockets in Toronto, and should be thrilled to fork over our cash to Rogers and a foreign sports team.

The hype continued once we were inside, even though the general atmosphere was fun. The others in my row were friendly, and we enjoyed ourselves. (Not hard when your ticket is free.) There’s just nothing like being in a big stadium with thousands of other people, watching a game.

Except…it all seemed designed to occupy the fans’ minds with everything but the game. The passing back and forth of beer and candy along your row. People in your section standing up and yelling, waving their hands trying to catch freebies thrown into the crowd. The glowing strip of light around the middle of the seating, cycling ads whose brightness alters as they change, so that you must look, every time.

The commercials on the jumbo screen – so many, so often, that I found myself thinking, “Nice of them to intersperse a few bits of football among the ads, occasionally.”

Everything was designed to yank as much money out of your pocket as humanly possible, even after you’d mortgaged your home for the privilege of attending at all.

The game itself was fairly entertaining, when we could concentrate. We saw lots of scoring, and it was nice to be able to think, “I’ve now seen Ben Roethlisberger in person.” Fans of the Bills and their opponents, the Pittsburgh Steelers, came in force, wearing jerseys emblazoned with the names of current and past players in the league. Harris. Kelly. Thomas. Roethlisberger – worn mostly, as far as I saw, by women. A jersey with “Bledsoe” on the back. Romo. Owens.

The fans came prepared to cheer and they did so, with gusto. (It’s been a long, long time since I’ve participated in The Wave.) But this was a Toronto crowd, not a Buffalo crowd. Meaning we could root for anyone we chose, so fans cheered almost as loudly for the Steelers as the Bills. This wasn’t a crowd planning to adopt the Bills as a “home” team merely because they were told to. Especially for such a high price.

Mister Rogers and friends should take note. Despite the loud hype and the opportunity to pour money into tycoons’ pockets, the people of Toronto are the ones who decide who we cheer for – and how much we’ll pay.

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