Toronto beginning to warm to winning Bills

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(Eds: Updates throughout. With AP Photos.)By JOHN WAWROWAP Sports Writer

Safety George Wilson's concerns about Toronto football fans' indifference toward the Buffalo Bills aside, the Great White North might finally be warming to its adopted NFL home team.

There's nothing like a potent offense, a couple of dramatic comeback victories and, most important, a winning record to create some buzz in a city where hockey comes first and NFL loyalties are unequally spread.

''Listen, the best marketing campaign in sports is a winning team,'' Bills-In-Toronto series general manager Silvio D'Addario said this week as the Bills (4-2) prepare to ''host'' the Washington Redskins (3-3) on Sunday.

This is the first time the Bills head north with a winning record - and it's a big turnaround from last year, when Buffalo dropped to 0-8 following a 22-19 loss to Chicago in Toronto.

''Not only are they in the thick of things with their record, but it's how they're playing,'' D'Addario said. ''Everything is coming together. And you can sense and I can sense that there's a genuine excitement in the city this year about the game and about the Buffalo Bills.''

That would also be a first as the Bills' cross-border bid to expand their region 100 miles north into Canada's largest city enters the fourth of a five-year, $78 million deal the team reached with Toronto-based media giant Rogers Communications.

The series has experienced growing pains since its inception.

On the field, the first three regular-season games have been duds. Buffalo has stumbled in losing all three while playing inside a cavernous, made-for-baseball domed Rogers Centre that lacks the raucous atmosphere of Ralph Wilson Stadium.

It's been so bad that George Wilson complained this week of how he doesn't regard this as a ''home'' game, while questioning Toronto fans' lack of passion and loyalty to the Bills. The safety wasn't the only one, as receiver David Nelson noted that Wilson was merely voicing what most players already think.

From a marketing perspective, very little has worked - not pep rallies nor prime-time starts - to generate much more than a yawn or a full house, particularly with an average ticket price of $180 which is about three times what it costs at Orchard Park.

Though the games in Toronto have been listed as sellouts, the largest announced attendance at the 54,000-seat stadium was 52,134 in 2008. And a large chunk of those watching were Dolphins fans, cheering on Miami's 16-3 victory.

This game against Washington has a chance to be different, something D'Addario first began to notice once the Bills opened with a 3-0 record. The run was capped by a 34-31 win over New England in which the Bills rallied from a 21-0 deficit.

D'Addario attended that game and, a day later, returned to his office to discover a big bump in interest.

''The excitement that was in Buffalo that day, you could tell it carried over out to here as well,'' he said. ''There was definitely a difference.''

Though some tickets are still available, D'Addario said it's a figure much smaller than in past years. And that's a credit to the Bills' start, too, because Rogers lost four months of marketing potential due to the NFL lockout, and didn't place tickets on sale until August.

D'Addario can appreciate Wilson's concerns, while expressing hope that this Sunday's atmosphere will be different than in years past.

''I have a suspicion that you're going to see it this year,'' D'Addario said. ''I think there's a tremendous amount of NFL fans in Toronto, and I think you'll see a difference on Sunday.''

Though both the Bills and Rogers are staying mum on the future of the series beyond next season, there is interest to continue it.

The Bills have benefited, gaining a boost in season-ticket sales from a growing base of fans from southern Ontario. Rogers has benefited, too, combining its NFL partnership with its numerous entities to capitalize on the league's popularity across Canada.

The NFL is on board in wanting to keep the series going. It not only plays into the league's attempt to globalize the sport, but is also considered key in keeping the small-market Bills viable in western New York.

''Right now our focus would be making what we've done here with the Bills playing the one game in Toronto successful,'' NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this month. ''The more we work on that and focus on that, makes it even better for this market and for Toronto because for us, it's all one region.''

Tagged: Bills, George Wilson

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