The Washington Redskins will play their seventh game of the 2011 season on the road against the Buffalo Bills, but they won't be playing in Buffalo, they will be playing in Toronto, Canada. The game is part of the NFL's international 'promotion tour', and has been every year since 2008, when Toronto began it's run as the host of one Bills 'home' game per year. The contract was for 8 games in Toronto between 2008 and 2012 - four preseason games and four regular season games.
Don't expect a Buffalo Bills fan to have many good things to say about it - after all, you're taking away one of their home games and making it, well, not a home game. Buffalo is 0-3 so far at the Rogers Center, so that isn't helping either. At least Bills fans have an opportunity to see a surging Buffalo team this year, at 4-2, they're in much better shape than when they came in last year at 0-7.
The Bills have struggled at the gate in recent years, so murmurs of a move, and the fact that Toronto would be at the very top of the list of international cities that would be in the market for a team, and it's easy to understand why Bills fans are hesitant to embrace the Toronto game as their own. Many of them just stay away from Toronto and consider their season tickets to be seven regular season games.
Expect to see a fair amount of burgundy and gold in the Rogers Center on Sunday. The game is classed as a sellout, and historically always has been, so the Bills season tickets don't appear to be going to waste. Why would they? Toronto is a sports mecca, and even the non-partisan, generic football fan jumps at the chance to see something other than a CFL game on Canadian soil. The people of Toronto don't seem to be embracing the Bills as 'their own' any more than the Bills fans are embracing the city of Toronto, but Canadian football fans have supported the NFL product in Canada regardless. So not only will you see bills and Redskins jerseys in attendance on Sunday, there's a good bet you'll see a heavy dose of Leafs, Jays and Raptors jerseys as well.
The NFL would love to see all of the Canadian border cities embrace the NFL product; after all, the league doesn't have to bring a team to say, Vancouver, if the fans there start getting behind the Seattle Seahawks. The same can be said of any Canadian city that is near the Buffalo Bills, the Cleveland Browns, the Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions or even the New England Patriots.
There are currently just ten Canadian players in the NFL, with the Washington Redskins' own Oshiomogho Atogwe being arguably the highest profile of the bunch. Every last one of them probably worked harder to get there than 90% of their American counterparts. It isn't that the talent isn't in Canada, the NFL just needs to work on developing football at a more grass roots level (which they are). Kids need to be picking up on the game in their formative years, then the game will start seeing some of the nation's best athletes choose football, as opposed to hockey. Then and only then, will Canadian players start spilling over into the American product.
Some of the struggles of a Canadian football prodigy also have to do with the fact that the Canadian game is a different game of football. Canadian players have a phenomenal learning curve when they make the jump from Canadian football to American rules football. Whether it is when they are trying to catch on with an NFL team, or even trying to catch on with an American college program, Canadian kids have the added caveat of having to also learn the American game first. The same can be said of the NFL's target Canadian TV audience as well, so for now, the league is stuck selling their product to a fairly uneducated, or at least inexperienced, American football audience.
For the record, and since they get little fanfare, here are the ten Canadians currently playing in the National Football League: Cory Greenwood, KC, LB, Kingston, ON; Vaughn Martin, SD, DE, Toronto, ON (Jamaica); Jamaal Westerman, NYJ, LB, Brampton, ON; Austin Collie, IND, WR, Hamilton, ON; Shaun Suisham, PIT, K, Wallaceburg, ON; Jon Ryan, SEA, P, Regina, SK; L.P. Ladouceur, DAL, LS, Pointe Claire, QC; Nick Kaczur, NE, OL, Brantford, Ontario; Israel Idonije, CHI, DT, Brandon, Manitoba; Nate Burleson, DET, WR, Calgary, AB; Oshiomogho Atogwe, WAS, S, Windsor, ON.
Many of them have a story of perseverance, or they wouldn't be on the list.
That small number of ten players will start to change, the more the youth are exposed to things like the Bills playing some games in Toronto. Many young athletes' careers start with watching games on television, or playing in the yard, but what a kid chooses to watch, or to play, stem directly from the environment around them. Canadian TV sports channels ramp up their football coverage around this Bills game, the local radio stations give it a lot of play as well, and chances are, more Canadian dads are out playing football with their sons this week in that cool, brisk Canadian autumn wind.
Leave the pundits and politicians to figure out if the NFL is actually test marketing Toronto as a future home for the Buffalo Bills. Perhaps the most important thing for the NFL's future in Canada, is that when the Bills and Redskins line up on Sunday, there will be a boy in the stadium, a Canadian boy, dreaming about one day being out on that NFL field.