Toronto’s NFL experiment begins this Thursday—and while we still don’t know where it’ll lead, we do know it’s beginning not with a bang but a whimper.
Not that the Buffalo (Toronto?) Bills are an awful team; neither are their inaugural Toronto opponents, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who’ve actually won more games than anyone else since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970. The problem isn’t the teams—it’s the format, as well as how it’s being marketed. The NFL’s preseason is a pallid impression of the real thing; the difference is even more pronounced than it is with North America’s other “big four” professional sports leagues. However, the NFL forces its franchises to charge full price for what are, to all intents and purposes, glorified practice sessions. Moreover, Rogers is advertising Thursday’s game like it’s a mini Super Bowl. That’s their prerogative, obviously, just as it’s our prerogative not to attend. To us, the whole operation (at least regarding the first of the Bills’ eight scheduled Toronto dates) feels pretty disingenuous.
Because a mini Super Bowl this will not be. Toronto fans shouldn’t expect the teams’ stars like Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, or Marshawn Lynch to play much beyond the first quarter. That’s just the way it is: there’s absolutely no point in risking a franchise player (or even a regular, everyday starter) when there’s nothing at stake. Once they’ve departed, an assortment of second-stringers will take the field and jostle for position, hoping they do enough to secure a roster spot in a few weeks’ time. In other words, the final score will not matter. Again, we know this is the nature of the preseason—but when Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment!) is giving away free tickets to a Toronto Maple Leafs preseason game, there’s something fundamentally wrong with a $575 top ticket price for Thursday’s contest.
Unfortunately, the first “real” NFL game in Toronto might not be much better. No one’s about to confuse the present incarnation of the Miami Dolphins with, say, the New England Patriots…or even with the Buffalo Bills. Last year, the Dolphins were a whisker away from being the NFL’s first-ever winless team; an improbable overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens spared them that ignominious distinction, but they’re still an awfully long way from being good. Barring a Lazarus-like turnaround from the Dolphins, we’ll have to wait until at least 2009 to see quality NFL football in Toronto.
Of course, if you’re curious to see what the fuss is about, you might actually want to head down to the Rogers Centre on Thursday. The secondary market is already saturated with discounted tickets; we’d imagine they’ll be even cheaper by then. If you’ve never experienced live NFL football, this might be your best way of doing so cheaply. Just don’t expect this game to live up to its billing—at least not this time ’round.
Photo by kevbo1983 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.