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Bills trying to find ways to raise their profile in Toronto

Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller (21) rushes past Indianapolis Colts' Jacob Lacey (27) in the first quarter of a preseason NFL football game in Toronto on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Michael Groll/The Globe and Mail

Step off the Toronto subway at Union Station, cross the skywalk to the Rogers Centre, and you're faced with one of the biggest mysteries football's Buffalo Bills have yet to solve about Toronto.

Facing the ticket booth for the Bills Toronto Series, there's a huge poster on a pillar of a Buffalo running back, charging with a full head of steam with the ball tucked under his arm.

But there's no face on the player. No strain, no eyes - and certainly no expression that says 'I'll do it for Toronto.' The Bills have no face in Toronto.

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It's a schlocky, sentimental, sports cliché, but it's a symbol of the impediments the Buffalo Bills are encountering as they step over the Canada-U.S. border to try to prop up their National Football League franchise. When Marv Levy was coaching, when Doug Flutie was trying to be an NFL quarterback, even when London's Tim Tindale fought for three years to be an undersized (5-foot-11) starter with the Bills team, there was a Canadian connection. There was a face Canadians could relate to. But now, the NFL brand is what attracts Canadians, not an identification with the Bills.

The Bills are a team that lives in irony. They're part of the world's most successful sports league, but they're based in an economically challenged city and have trouble selling out. They're across the lake from a city where people will gladly pay hundreds of dollars a night to watch the frustrations of a hockey team that struggles - usually unsuccessfully - to make the playoffs. But it's a hockey town and it has big-league basketball and baseball and even Canadian pro football.

The Bills need somehow to regionalize themselves - to become the cross-border rooting interest of fans in Southern Ontario as well as upper New York State. The question is, how? The annual Bills Toronto Series game causes as much controversy as excitement. Is the NFL encroaching on the Canadian Football League's main market?

The NFL team brought its marketing staff to Toronto this week to meet with four teams of MBA students at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management to the University of Toronto, looking for ideas that will make the Bills Toronto Series a success.

Among the attractive ideas were creating a group of dedicated supporters, a la Andrew Bogut's efforts to create a rooting section at Milwaukee Bucks basketball games (he gives out 100 lower-level seats to chanting, screaming, wig-wearing fans who have auditioned to create some atmosphere as Squad 6); the idea of overcoming Ontario's liquor laws by substituting the typical NFL tailgate parties with special "wing-fest" nights at a chain of bars and restaurants; the idea of sending Toronto's NFL fans to Buffalo games by bundling Bills tickets with discount nights at a Niagara-area casino and hotel, so attending a game becomes a weekend event and not just a one-time ordeal of waiting at the border.

"There were a lot of great ideas, some of which we've thought about before and some that had a different twist on them that we'll have to look at again," said Mary Owen, the Bills' executive vice-president of strategic planning.

She was impressed with the need for Torontonians and Southern Ontarians to feel ownership and authenticity of a franchise. "Toronto and Buffalo are so different," she said. It would be next to impossible to drop the Buffalo handle from the Bills to make them a bland cross-border entity, Owen said. It would be the marketing equivalent of tossing away history - 17 postseason appearances and four Super Bowl appearances.

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The experience of attending an NFL event is also unique, she said. It's not just the three hours that transpire within the cauldron of the game but the meeting of people, sharing of foods and drinks and stories in tailgate sessions. Some of that would take some time to recreate if tailgate parties aren't possible in Ontario. The Bills also have to appeal to a multicultural fan who is soccer-oriented and hasn't grown up with football on Sundays or as a big part of the university scene. It's tough to do when the Bills are in town only a few days a year.

"We do want to be in the community every day and we have partnered with the YMCA to run three funds for flag football. We also were part of a football week in Toronto last year, with the Argonauts and Football Canada and plan to continue that this year. We'll look into a Lil' Bills mentoring program.

"The whole effort is innovative. We're the second smallest market in the NFL, and it doesn't come without its challenges. But we're also the first NFL team to take regular-season games onto foreign soil," she said.

The Bills are in the third year of a five-year, eight-game (five league games and three exhibitions) in Toronto. No one knows precisely what will happen to the franchise when the 92-year-old owner of the Bills, Ralph Wilson, is gone, "but we're focusing on making the agreement work [to play annually in Toronto's Rogers Centre]so it will be renewed."

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