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Home Not So Sweet Home

Why NFL games in new cities are great for everybody but the ‘home’ side.

On Sunday afternoon, the Buffalo Bills will ‘host’ the Seattle Seahawks at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The game marks the fifth straight year that the Bills have traveled north of the border to host a regular season game. It was originally scheduled to be the last but that could change.

Earlier this year, the NFL’s front office approved the extension of the series through 2017, providing the Bills’ organization and Rogers Communications – owners of the stadium – can come to an agreement. Any future deal will not be made until the Bills have come to an agreement with Erie County over the lease of Ralph Wilson Stadium, which comes to an end on July 31, 2013.

The Bills are looking for renovations to the sum of $200 million or will consider building a new stadium. Some would even have the Bills move to Toronto permanently.

But before the Bills ink any kind of new deal they might want to consider the not-so-advantageous ‘home away from home’ proposal.

Since the Bills Toronto Series began in 2008, the Bills have won just one of four regular season games, and that was last year against the then-hapless Washington Redskins. Prior to that meeting, the Bills were 0-3. Granted, two of those games were close (decided by six points or less) but in the NFL, a loss is a loss and a loss can be very damaging.

The side has won two preseason games in Toronto, but we all know what preseason games amount too; diddly squat.

The Bills are not the only side to struggle when playing a home game away from home.

In 2005, New Orleans played all of its home games away from the Superdome, which was being used for emergency shelter in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Saints won just one ‘home’ game that season, as seven of the eight games were split between San Antonio’s Alamodome and Baton Rouge’s Tiger Stadium. The remaining ‘home’ game was actually played in the Meadowlands against the New York Giants.

The NFL International Series – which has been held at Wembley Stadium in London, England, since 2007 – has seen a very apparent disparity between the ‘home’ and road sides.

Four of the six games played in London have gone the way of the road team. Only the New Orleans Saints in 2008 and the San Francisco 49ers in 2010 have emerged victorious as the designated home side.

Of course, these statistics are somewhat skewed. Those teams accepting the NFL’s invite to drop a U.S. home game in favor of a London game are generally those that are struggling. You only need to look at Jacksonville to see that.

The lowly Jaguars were only too happy to jump at the chance to play in London for four straight years (starting in 2013), substituting tepid receptions in Northern Florida for crowds of 80,000 football-hungry fans.

But will the Jaguars go the way of the St. Louis Rams? The Rams scheduled three games in London beginning in 2012. Before the Rams had even been thrashed by the Patriots in the first of these, the remaining games were pulled back in favor of the Edward Jones Dome.

Of course, the big difference between St. Louis and Jacksonville is that the Rams have a long-term deal with the Edward Jones Dome while most of us believe that the Jaguars’ time in Jacksonville is strictly limited, most likely until one of those Los Angeles stadiums is ready to go.

Whilst the list of those willing to head abroad might not be as short as you might expect, it would be hard to imagine Jerry Jones dropping a game from Cowboys Stadium or John Mara and Steve Tisch giving up MetLife Stadium for a Giants home game. And with the fans owning Green Bay, don’t expect the Packers to be skipping even one game at Lambeau Field.

It would be remiss to believe there are no advantages to playing occasionally in a new city though.

For the Bills, playing in Toronto offers the opportunity to extend its fan base, something any small market side – Green Bay excused – doesn’t so much want to do as need to do.

As we’ve seen, those international games in London offer smaller sides the opportunity to play in front of larger crowds, as well as providing all teams with fan-building opportunities and merchandising jackpots.

Then there’s the growth of the NFL as a product. These games give the league larger markets to play with, and more revenue to share with all NFL sides.

In 2005, the Arizona Cardinals ‘hosted’ San Francisco 49ers at Mexico City’s Stadio Azteca. 103,467 people passed through the gates, most of which had never seen an NFL game. How can that not be good for the league? Actually, that game was good for the Cardinals too as the team ran out winners in a rare home away from home win. The way the side has played this year, maybe it’s time to play another game in the City of Palaces.

But if you were a team owner, would you want your side hitting the road for that one extra game?

We know that coaches and players are hardly enamored with the idea of traveling the extra distance, although the 160 mile round-trip the Bills make yearly is slightly easier than the 7,000 mile round-trip to London.

Fans aren’t exactly all that joyful about the switch. After all, travel isn’t cheap these days. But would owners take the opportunity to cash in on what is a potentially lucrative situation?

In many ways, with an estimated 15 to 20 percent of Bills’ game day visitors originating in Southern Ontario, it makes a lot of sense for the side to head north. But if the Bills want to continue playing north of the border, they need to buck this trend for losing at their home away from home.

They can start this week by defeating Seattle. Unluckily for the Bills, the Seahawks picked up a rare road win two weekends ago, and are looking like a team intent on making the postseason.

The Bills will be underdogs in this one, and have few redeeming features ahead of this one. Looks like we’ll be witnessing another home away from home loss for the Bills come Sunday.

Maybe it’s time to screw that contract up now.

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