ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – With an agreement nearly in place to have the Buffalo Bills continue playing an annual home game in Toronto beyond this season, Rogers Communications executives are confident this north-of-the-border experiment can succeed.
Just not at any ticket price.
After having difficulty selling out the first six games — including two during the preseason — organizers have drastically reduced ticket prices.
The average price for a ticket for Buffalo's "home" game against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 16 in Toronto will be $99. That's down from about $160 in 2008, when the series began.
"I really think the thing that impacted this thing negatively in the past is price-point on tickets," Greg Albrecht, the series' newly appointed executive director, said Monday. "In all of our marketing, that's what we hammered home was ticket-pricing has been reduced, not because the product on the field is any worse or better, it's because we were not aligned with the rest of the NFL teams."
Albrecht said the Toronto series average ticket is still about $17 above the NFL average, which he believes is acceptable because the game is a once-a-year event. It's still a marked drop from the first year, when prices ranged from $99-$275. This year, they range from $48-$225.
The reduction comes at a time when the series is set to expire. The game against the Seahawks is the finale of the five-year deal reached between the Bills and Rogers, the Toronto-based communications company giant.
Albrecht said negotiations to renew the series are nearly complete.
"I think we still have to dot a few I's and cross a few T's. I think it's more administrative at this point," he said. "But we're obviously confident that we'd like to move this thing forward."
The Bills are in favor of extending the series, because it provides them a foothold in Canada's largest city and financial capital. With Toronto only about a two-hour drive from Buffalo, the Bills have also been able to lure Toronto-area fans to attend games at Orchard Park.
The team estimates that 15 percent of its season-ticket base is from southern Ontario.
The formal announcement of a series extension is not expected until early next year. One holdup is the Bills are in negotiations with state and county officials to renew their lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which expires in July.
Progress has been made in lease negotiations since stalling in late summer. But talks are temporarily on hold because New York officials have spent the past month directing much of their attention on the lasting effects of Superstorm Sandy.
Rogers agreed to pay the Bills $78 million to play eight games (including three preseason) at the downtown domed 54,000-seat Rogers Centre. It's unknown whether the entire amount was paid after a scheduling conflict in August led to Rogers having the Bills take back a preseason game that was set to be played in Toronto.
An extension of the series is expected to be similar to the previous deal, with Buffalo playing one annual regular-season game in Toronto, though it's unclear how many — if any preseason games — will be included this time.
Despite enduring numerous growing pains, Rogers remains committed to making the series work.
"I think it would be silly for us to say, 'We're not going to entertain moving this thing forward,' after quite honestly some of the pain that we've faced in the past years of learning," Albrecht said. "We have our learning now, and I think this game will prove we're on the right path."
Albrecht, who took over the series in August, has stopped the previous practice of giving away tickets in order to draw larger crowds. He's also worked on turning the game into more of an entertainment event.
He's already scored a coup by signing South Korean rap sensation PSY to perform during half time. PSY's "Gangnam Style" has become YouTube's most-viewed video, generating more than 840 million views.
"I think just being topical and being fun: That's what this whole thing is all about," Albrecht said. "We're opening it to not just die-hard football fans, but opening it up to people who might be on the fence right now, or folks who want to spend an afternoon wanting to have a good time."
Albrecht has a broad background in overseeing sports and entertainment projects, including the 2010 Vancouver Games and two Canadian Football League Grey Cup championships.
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