Unless it’s the Super Bowl, the halftime show at an NFL stadium usually is neither seen nor heard. But Sunday afternoon in Toronto, the halftime act might engage Rogers Centre fans more than the game between the Seahawks and Buffalo Bills.
Korean rapper Park Jae-song – better known by his stage name of PSY – is scheduled to perform. A few weeks ago, PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” with almost a billion hits, surpassed Justin Bieber’s “Baby” as the most-watched YouTube video in history. Overtaking a world-history icon like Justin Bieber is no small accomplishment.
I share this not because I find it newsworthy – as time goes by, a PSY is just a PSY – but because the promoters of the Hawks-Bills game believe PSY can help sell tickets.
Since 2008, the Bills have played one regular-season game a year in Toronto. The idea was to reveal the city’s appetite for a future NFL franchise (that hasn’t happened) while lining the very-insulated coat pockets of Buffalo’s owners. (That has happened: Rogers Centre paid the Bills $78 million for the five-year series. Although the contract is due to expire after this season, it was renewed for another five years, through 2017.)
Expanding the Bills’ small market into Canada makes sense. About 15,000 of the team’s season-ticket holders live in southern Ontario – Toronto is a two-hour drive from Buffalo – and the climate-controlled Rogers Centre is a more appealing option for a December football date than Ralph Wilson Stadium.
But organizers of the “Bills in Toronto” series are 0-4 in sellouts. The largest turnout was for the 2008 inaugural between the Bills and Dolphins, when a crowd of 52,134 was announced for a game in a stadium with a seating capacity of 54,000. Thousands of tickets went unused; those who did show up seemed to support the victorious Dolphins more than the “home” team, which drew only about 1,500 fans from western New York.
When the Bears traveled to Toronto two years ago, the visitors sensed they were playing in a quieter, infinitely more comfortable version of Chicago’s Soldier Field.
“It was,” former Bears tight end Greg Olsen said at the time, “like a home game for us.”
Some of this apathy can be explained by the Bills, who once again are on the brink of elimination. They last advanced to the playoffs in 1999, and haven’t won a playoff game since 1995.
“One of the problems with this Bills in Toronto series, aside from all the other obvious problems, is that it features the Bills,” Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons once wrote. “The trouble is, we already have enough lousy teams in Toronto.”
Another problem is a general ho-hum attitude toward the NFL in Toronto, where athletes are more prone to compete with blades under their feet than cleats.
Hockey is a passion, even while the beloved Maple Leafs remain locked out of an NHL season gutted by a collective-bargaining stalemate.
Football? It’s a mere diversion.
As for the Seahawks, whose wariness of the road was eased but not eradicated by their inspired comeback at Chicago on Dec. 2, they might consider writing a thank-you note to the league’s schedule makers. Toronto looks less like a hostile environment than a neutral site, where fans of any kind are craved.
In 2008, the average price of a Bills-Dolphins ticket in Toronto was $160. For the Korean rapper’s show sandwiched by two halves of NFL football on Sunday, the average ticket price is $99.
“I think just being topical and being fun – that’s what this whole thing is about,” Greg Albrecht, executive director of the Bills in Toronto series, recently told The Associated Press. “We’re opening it to not just the die-hard football fans, but opening it up to people who might be on the fence right now, or folks who want to spend an afternoon wanting to have a good time.”
People on the fence? Folks who want to have a good time? That’s not the kind of crowd capable of rattling a talented football team. Heck, that’s not even a football crowd. That’s an audience.
But, hey, it’s all good. Toronto gets to enjoy an actual sports contest while the NHL season remains on hold. The Bills get to pay their bills. The Seahawks get to look at a road game unlike any other road game.
And if the kids in the audience are thrilled by the dance moves PSY displays at halftime, well ...
Just wait until they see Golden Tate.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com