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B-school students give Buffalo Bills a piece of their mind

Steve Johnson, #13 of the Buffalo Bills, is pushed out of bounds by William Gay, #22, of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ralph Wilson Stadium on November 28, 2010, in Orchard Park, New York.

Rick Stewart/Rick Stewart/Getty Images

"Buffalo Bill" Cody got his moniker after he slaughtered 4,200 of the one-tonne beasts. The American folk hero was a cook for the Kansas Pacific Railroad and he needed to feed his starving men. The solution was roaming around right in front of him.

A century and a half later, the National Football League team named in his honour is starving for new fans. A team of MBA students at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management's case competition last week, showed that the answer may be right in front them, too.

The team needs to expand its ticket sales or is in danger of being moved to a different city.

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"Ladies and gentlemen, if there's one thing Toronto loves - it's wings," a slick-suited student, Richard Heller, told the judges, noting the trend of wing restaurants popping up on every block. "And if there's one thing that says Buffalo, it's the Buffalo wing."

His team, the Mad Dogs, won the hearts of the judges; four of them were from Bills management and one was from Rogers Communications. Rogers was there because the firm paid $78-million in 2008 to have five games played at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.

The MBA students were tasked with creating a plan to further "regionalize" the business.

For management students, case competitions like these are the perfect opportunity to test out marketing savvy and presentation skills in front of big league bosses.

The Mad Dogs won with their idea of a chicken wing festival in Toronto sponsored by the Buffalo Bills, complete with a Buffalo-versus-Toronto wing chef cookoff, in order to create the type of excitement found at raucous tailgate parties before each Buffalo, N.Y., game.

Their big idea was simple, but they convinced the judges that they had properly researched the different market segments. Business students should take note.

"It wasn't just their ideas that won, but their command of the material," said Mary Owen, EVP of Strategic Planning for the Bills, when she announced Mad Dog as the winners. "They identified the problem and offered tangible fixes."

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The scenario they had to work with was this. The Buffalo Bills are popular and profitable. But the team, which was worth $800-million in 2009, according to Forbes, would be worth even more if it was in a bigger city than Buffalo, which offers little room for growth. Western New York has 2.5 million people and is shrinking.

The team's 92-year-old owner, Ralph Wilson, can't leave it to his heirs when he dies, without leaving them with a catastrophic estate tax bill, so it will almost certainly be sold. When it is, there's a clear case for moving it to Los Angeles, with 15 million people, a new stadium and no team.

Getting more buy-in among the 8 million people in Southern Ontario is the Bills's best hope of keeping the team in Buffalo. The Rogers deal has worked so far. Since the Bills started playing in Toronto, season ticket sales to Ontarians have grown by 44 per cent. The challenge now is to get even more Canucks to make the Bills their own.

Which brings us back to wings. The wing festival was just one of the ways the Mad Dogs proposed for building a sense of ownership among Torontonians. The festival would be aimed mainly at converting the "armchair athletes" segment of the market, who attend beer and wings joints to watch hockey, but who could easily be converted to Bills fans.

But armchair athletes are just one of the five segments that the team divided its potential new customers into. The other segments they chose, each requiring its own marketing strategy, were "new Canadians," "families," "amateur Athletes," and "new opportunities."

Richard Powers, a sports marketing expert from Rotman who reviewed the team's proposal afterward, agreed that their greatest strength was proper market segmentation.

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For example, the team offered research that suggests families are the most price sensitive. To reach them, the Mad Dogs suggested the Bills bundle cheap tickets with Rogers products like magazines, cable and Internet service. That's a proven strategy, says Mr. Powers, noting bundling helped Rogers sell Toronto Blue Jays tickets in the past.

Where Mr. Powers saw a problem was with the Mad Dogs' strategy for converting new Canadians through a campaign in the ethnic media. He's not convinced that it would be worth the cash to go after that segment specifically.

"I'm not so sure they'd choose football when they have growing opportunities to attend games they're familiar with," says Mr. Powers, suggesting that soccer and cricket leagues will pull in most new Canadian sports fans.

Finally, in order to convert the amateur athletes segment into the types who will paint Billy the Buffalo on their naked chest on game day, the Mad Dogs suggested sponsored Toronto Bills jerseys for young players and discounted tickets for post-secondary players.

"That's really the key," says Mr. Powers. "Going after amateurs is working for the Rock [Toronto's lacrosse team]and it's working for Toronto FC [soccer] If they can give these grassroots football teams discounts and jerseys, they can build up affinity long-term."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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