Toronto may finally score its own team in the National Football League, if the longstanding rumours of the NFL’s plans for Canadian expansion are to be believed.
“[Players] will always aspire to play in the NFL, because that’s the top league, the best of the best, where everyone wants to make a name for themselves,” says Varsity Blues men’s football head coach Greg Gary. Gary’s no stranger to pro football: he’s played in both the NFL, with the Los Angeles Rams, and the CFL, with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.Gary believes that a NFL team in the city would create opportunities for student athletes both on and off the field. “Maybe they’d be able to get a job as a ball boy or something similar on their way to the pros, if that’s a path they choose to take.”As far as on-field opportunities go, “there is a huge difference between the people who are physically capable of playing in the two leagues. While I think there are always going to be guys who can make the transition from college ball here in Canada to the pros, the CFL and NFL are just different when it comes to style of play,” said Gary.Hugo Lopez is a prime example to of the idea that the playing opportunities for student athletes would not necessarily change with an NFL team in the city. Lopez played for the Varsity Blues, and yet while the Argos showed interest in him at the combine hosted at Varsity Stadium, he went to the Edmonton Eskimos. There is no guarantee that U of T student athletes would get to play for their hometown team, or even play at all, in the NFL.“[There is a difference] in preparation at the college level or even before that,” says Gary. “The guys in the NFL are trained to go after one position specifically, and do it well; here in the CFL, guys have to be capable of playing different spots.”For example, “a linesman here in the CFL wouldn’t be able to play linesman exclusively in the NFL, he’d have to play outside linebacker or defensive end, thanks to the size and weight of the guys over in the States.”U of T’s football program plays football CFL style: three downs, larger fields, larger footballs and unlimited motion before the snap. However, it is unlikely that the presence of an NFL team in the city would change the way football operates at the university. The Varsity Blues are a part of the OUA , and if they were to change the way they played football, they would likely be declared ineligible to play competitively against other universities in Ontario.As a city with avid fans of nearly every sport, Toronto simply makes sense as a home for an NFL team. Would it draw fans from, say, the Toronto Argonauts? “There are always fans of both leagues, of course,” says Gary. “At the same time, you’re still going to have people who watch just the CFL and people who watch just the NFL. Even if an NFL team came to Toronto, Argos fans are still going to be Argos fans; Ti-Cats fans are still going to be Ti-Cats fans.”As for commercial operations and reputation, Toronto’s existing professional major league teams are an indicator of the potential in the city. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, are an Original Six team, and the Toronto Raptors have one of the largest fanbases in all of North America. Even the Blue Jays — Toronto’s rep in the MLB — are fairly well known, having won the World Series twice in the early 1990s.“An NFL franchise is a huge deal,” says Gary, “and it brings with it a lot of new jobs especially for people working in the stadium itself.”There are roadblocks to a possible Toronto team, of course. For all the revenue they generate, NFL franchises are valued at almost $1 billion each. The culture of American football isn’t nearly as established up in Canada as it is in the United States. Another major problem is that Buffalo — just 45 minutes away from Toronto — already has a football team, the Buffalo Bills. “The Bills are pretty well entrenched in Toronto,” Gary noted, “Yes, they’re not very good right now, but that is [Buffalo’s] team, you know.”Perhaps acknowledging this fanbase, the late Ted Rogers, founder of media giant Rogers Inc., had already arranged for the Bills to play the Miami Dolphins in Toronto this December. The possible success of Rogers’ push for a team could be gauged by the number of tickets sold for the upcoming Redskins–Bills game.There is also no shortage of people in high places who would like to see an NFL team in the city. Councillor Doug Ford, brother of mayor Rob Ford, recently told thescore.com, “[The NFL] have to take care of the problem in Los Angeles first. Two teams are kind of in play here: Jacksonville’s number one; New Orleans is the other. So there’s two teams. Once they take care of Los Angeles, we’re going to fly over to New York, set up a meeting with [NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell and give him our pitch.” Ford also noted, “they can’t keep ignoring a market this size.”While the NFL is popular in Canada, the CFL has a core audience of fans. The two leagues already have broadcasting schedules worked out, with CFL games being aired on Thursdays, Fridays and occasionally Saturdays, and the NFL airing on Sundays and Monday nights.“Even in America, where I’m from,” Gary says, “the CFL now has one game a week broadcast to the general public. They’re two different games, of course, but people in the States are getting a better view of what we do up here north of the border.”With files from theScore.com