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Barbados trip a lure for football fans


Tony Best

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Marketing an American-style football team to Americans and Canadians, who haven’t been flocking to its games in recent times, isn’t sport at all.
It’s serious business. And when it involves the Buffalo Bills, the National Football League’s (NFL) franchise in upstate New York, the task can be doubly difficult. After all, the Bills haven’t been playing the most exciting brand of football – not soccer – in recent seasons.
Of the dozen games they have played at home and on the road in different parts of the United States, the team has won four and lost eight games. Secondly, the team’s home, Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park upstate New York, is known for its exceedingly cold and blustery winds on a Sunday afternoon, sudden downpours of rain or a snow storm or two.
That’s the kind of weather that would discourage even the most ardent fan from leaving a warm home and sit in a freezing open-air stadium.
So what do you do to get more fans through the turnstiles? The management and public relations executives of the Bills hit on a novel idea: dangle the prospect of a week in sunny Barbados for the family and people would come, hoping to get lucky.
The trouble was, the Bills were playing the Atlanta Falcons, another poorly performing club which has won three of its 12 games this season, not a record that would get people to a game in Ontario.
Ever since 2008, the Bills have been playing some of their exhibition and regular season games in Ontario every year. It’s part of a plan to show Canadians and Americans that southern Ontario in general and Toronto in particular are viable arenas that would make an NFL team a profitable and exciting venture.  
That prospect encouraged Rogers Communication to pay US$78 million for the rights to stage eight games. But the project hasn’t turned out to be a great money-spinner.
Two key reasons come quickly to mind: the Ontario economy hasn’t been exactly bright and prosperous and the Bills haven’t been a very exciting team to watch. So, the Bills have had to drop their ticket prices for the Ontario games and add some attractive items that would make the outing more than a football game in Canada.
For instance, there was a pre-game show, a half time performance by the Beach Boys and the tickets to Barbados.
As Greg Albrecht, executive director of the series of games in Ontario, explained the marketing strategy, “this is absolutely my goal, to make it the pre-eminent NFL experience in Canada.”
He described the trip to Barbados as “a pretty high-end prize” which was really “an incentive to get people to really start making a lot of noise and creating that crazy NFL fan experience in Toronto.”
But there may be more to it than that.
There is considerable speculation that the ultimate goal is to develop such a large fan base in Toronto that it would be relatively easy and profitable to re-locate the Bills to Toronto. But that would only happen if Ralph Wilson, the 95-year-old Bills owner, is no longer in control of the franchise.
For instance, he can sell the team or if he dies his heirs can sell it and the new owners would re-locate it to Toronto. Imagine Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – the National Hockey League Toronto Maple Leafs and the Raptors of the National Basketball Association – adding the Bills to the stable of sports teams.
With the Toronto Blue Jays, the Major League Basketball side already owning bragging rights to Canada’s best known city, the presence of the “Toronto” Bills to the network of franchises would boost the cachet of a proud city with its largest Caribbean immigrant population.
“I think we have some fans in Toronto and I think if we play well we’ll create more fans,” said Doug Marrone, the Bills new head coach.
“I think we can over a period of time, with success, really create that type of advantage for us over there.”
Interestingly, the sons of a few Barbadian immigrants who have made Canada their home away from home have played in the Canadian Football League, the country’s professional operation which has a team in Toronto and mirrors the NFL.

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