Bills hope to get warmer reception in Toronto

From Ottawa to the first verse of ‘O Canada,’ Buffalo Bills punter Brian Moorman had practically all the answers on Monday while delivering a Canadian pop quiz to his teammates after practice.

Moorman was filming a segment to be broadcast on his weekly local television show in preparation for the Bills‘ second annual game in Toronto on Thursday, when Buffalo is the “home” team against the New York Jets.

As entertaining as it was to stump quarterback – and Harvard grad – Ryan Fitzpatrick on who Canada’s prime minister is (it’s Stephen Harper), Moorman had one question that even he couldn’t answer: Will the Bills get a warmer reception than last year in their home away from home?

“Well, I think you’re always hoping to have a little bit more of an electric atmosphere for the home team,” said Moorman, recalling the large contingent of Dolphins fans that showed up last year to cheer Miami to a 16-3 win. “We’ll see what happens with the Jets. But obviously, we’d like for the people across the border to be Bills fans.”

In jeopardy of missing the playoffs for a 10th straight year, the Bills (4-7) haven’t given fans on either side of the border much to cheer about in a season plagued by turmoil. Buffalo got off to a 1-4 start and is in the midst of a coaching search after Dick Jauron was fired two weeks ago and replaced on an interim basis by defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.

Fewell has provided the team – and particularly its slumping offense – a spark after evening his record at 1-1 with a 31-14 win over Miami on Sunday. It was a game in which the Bills shed their reputation for folding in the fourth quarter by outscoring the Dolphins 24-0 in the final 14 minutes.

“It was nice for our team, I think it’ll give us a boost,” said Fitzpatrick, who helped the Bills offense produce four touchdowns for the first time in 16 games. “I guess there’s a renewed optimism.”

The Bills had little time to enjoy the victory, as they were back at practice Monday as they prepare to play their second game in four days. The Jets (5-6) are coming off a 17-6 win over Carolina, which snapped a three-game skid.

It’s not the marquee matchup between AFC East rivals Bills-in-Toronto organizers expected when the schedule came out last spring.

“It is true that a winning record is a better marketing tool,” said Rogers Communications executive Adrian Montgomery. “But having said that, we’re also in the unique position where we have one NFL regular-season game a year. And the uniqueness and scarcity of that, plus the fact that it’s a prime-time game … we’ve got a number of great storylines to tell.”

The main marketing theme this year is “T.O. in T.O.” in reference to Bills receiver Terrell Owens, who has the same initials as Toronto, Ontario. “It writes itself,” Montgomery said.

Rogers, the Canadian communications giant, agreed to pay the Bills $78 million to play five regular-season – one each year – and three preseason games through 2012.

The Bills are proving to be a tougher sell than first anticipated in becoming the NFL’s first team to play annual regular season games on international soil. Sponsors had difficulty selling out two games, including one preseason, last year.

In April, organizers reduced prices for this year by increasing the number of tickets priced at under $100 (Canadian currency), from 4,700 last season to 11,000. The top ticket price will be $275 at the Rogers Centre, the domed downtown stadium which seats about 54,000 seats for football.

Montgomery said he’s pleased with how ticket sales have picked up for this week’s game. Though he declined to say how many tickets have been sold as of last week, Montgomery said a full house is expected.

The deal has already paid off financially for the Bills. They are getting nearly $10 million per game in Toronto, which is estimated to be more than two times what the team generates from playing games at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Bills have made marketing inroads with companies based in Canada’s financial capital and also reported an increase in season-ticket sales from Ontario residents.

With a regional population of about 5 million, Toronto is Canada’s largest city and located about a 90-minute drive from Buffalo.

Rogers struck the deal in a bid to showcase Toronto as a potential home to land a permanent NFL franchise.