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Shoalts: Toronto’s quest for NFL team strewn with obstacles

The one thing NFL fans in Southern Ontario will need concerning the possibility of the Buffalo Bills moving to Toronto is patience.

This is not going to happen soon. Indeed, the Bills' stadium lease with Erie County and New York State practically guarantees the only time the club can be easily moved is 2020, when the Bills have a short one-time option following the 2019 season to buy out the last three years of the lease for $28.4-million (U.S.), according to The Buffalo News. Otherwise, the penalty for breaking the lease is $400-million, which puts it well beyond the cost of doing business in a transaction that will cost in excess of $2-billion once the price of the franchise, a new stadium, a training facility and a relocation fee for the NFL are added up.

In addition to the Bills' 10-year stadium lease, which was signed last year and brought with it $130-million from the state and Erie County for renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium, there are many other obstacles the Rogers family, which owns Rogers Communications Inc., and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. chairman Larry Tanenbaum face in their campaign to bring an NFL team to Toronto.

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The obstacles start with the sale of the Bills, which is not expected for a couple of years, since the club will be put into a family trust, as owner Ralph Wilson passed away at the age of 95 on Tuesday. Wilson's family could leave the team in the trust for as long as two years, according to sources cited by The Buffalo News. But they are expected to be sold in time for the new owner to exercise the $28.4-million lease buyout in 2020 if he or she wants to do so. The family has no interest in running the Bills in the long term and will sell to the highest bidder in order to raise the most money to pay the U.S. government the millions of dollars in estate taxes the sale will generate.

Naturally, there is strong interest in the Buffalo area in keeping the Bills, the city's most popular professional sports team. Terry Pegula, the billionaire who owns the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, has said he will look at buying the Bills if it looks as though they might move, as has another billionaire, Tom Golisano, who sold the Sabres to Pegula.

There will also be much support from New York State, although Governor Andrew Cuomo has not come out and said public money will help build a new stadium. But there are plans to at least look at building a new stadium to replace The Ralph, which has been around since the 1970s. Last month, Cuomo unveiled a working group of political heavyweights, including Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and New York Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy, to study the options for building a new stadium.

While Cuomo avoids getting into details on a new home for the Bills, he did tell a group of Bills fans last fall that "they're not only a big part of the community, they're a big part of the economy."

The Rogers family and Tanenbaum will face bidding competition from other cities aside from Buffalo. The NFL wants to get back in the Los Angeles market and MLSE chief executive officer Tim Leiweke's former boss, Philip Anschutz, who owns sports and entertainment conglomerate AEG, has an interest, among others.

Then, once the bidding is done, the new owner will have to persuade three-quarters of the NFL's 32 owners (24) to approve the move. As the second-largest television market in the United States, Los Angeles will have the edge on Toronto when it comes to owner support.

However, if the NFL has any plans for expansion, the Rogers family and Tanenbaum could still wind up with a team, although it is far from a slam-dunk.

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On the positive side, Tanenbaum has been pressing the flesh among NFL owners for years in hopes of landing a franchise. Someone else who has built relationships with NFL owners is Leiweke, who was Anschutz's point man in the chase for a Los Angeles franchise until he landed with MLSE. But in the end, it will be the size of the cheque that matters, not the size of the friendships.

The timing also works for the Toronto group. If the Wilson family holds the sale within two years, and the NFL approves a move to Toronto, it will give the group enough time to get a stadium in place when the Bills' lease option comes up in 2019.

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