Going back almost half a century, Toronto has played football with the National Football League.
There have been organized efforts to attract the league’s attention, including the settlement of pre-season and then even regular season matches.
None of that has turned into anything, yet the intrigue never seems to go away.
The latest warm-up on this long-running story came last week when it was reported that NFL owners kicked around the notion of a 36-team league (from the current 32) during a rally in late October, where the cities mentioned as candidates for expansion are St. Louis, London, San Antonio and… Toronto.
A subsequent story this week on Pro Football Talk speculated that the league could imagine a 40-team league with eight five-team divisions.
To be clear, both stories framed the NFL’s expansion discussions as preliminary, more at the time of throwing opportunities rather than making decisions and then proceeding with a plan. Still, by the time a league like the NFL starts discussing ideas, there’s an important person on board and has been thinking about the possibility for a while.
So does any of this make it more likely that Toronto will one day end up with an NFL team?
Answering that question means revisiting the reasons why there is no Toronto NFL franchise, despite the city’s apparent appeal as one of the largest and richest markets in North America.
There have always been several roadblocks to prevent this from happening.
The first is the lack of supply of NFL franchises, either through expansion or relocation. The NFL has expanded by just four teams since 1976, and relocation always involves a team moving to a city that offers a heavily subsidized state-of-the-art stadium, a game that politicians in Toronto and Ontario will not play.
But if the NFL is really loosening up the supply of franchises, it could be a game changer.
What has not changed, though, is the NFL’s reluctance to endanger health in the Buffalo market by putting a team in Toronto where much of the GTA sits within what the NFL considers the Bills’ catchment area.
Buffalo is in the process of pitching a new stadium project, estimated at between $ 1.4 and $ 1.7 billion (US), depending on the location chosen. With Bills and the state of New York making that kind of investment, the NFL would be even more cautious about the notion of how a Toronto team would affect Buffalo.
But if the obstacle could be cleared, would it then open the way for a Toronto franchise? Theoretically yes, but then you have to consider the dollars that should be involved.
Forbes magazine set the average value of an NFL team at $ 3.5 billion last summer. In a competitive situation for expansion franchises, the NFL will not sell for less than the value of the league average, meaning the current exchange rate will be at least $ 4.4 billion in Canadian dollars.
The fact that the NFL requires individuals to own their teams and not companies such as Rogers, Bell, or MLSE makes it much more challenging to fund a team.
Then there is the stadium issue.
The two most recently opened NFL stadiums are in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The Las Vegas stadium cost $ 1.8 billion (US) to build and included $ 750 million paid for by the local county. The stadium, shared by the Rams and Chargers in Inglewood, California, cost $ 5.5 billion, all privately.
Building a stadium similar to the one proposed for Buffalo would cost about $ 1.8 billion (Canadian), but probably far more when you consider the relative cost of real estate in southern Ontario. Submit the league standard for a campus-style training facility, and $ 3 billion is not out of the question.
All of this should be privately funded, as no government in Canada would be willing to hand out freebees to an NFL team.
That brings the total cost of this venture up to about $ 7.5 billion. And that’s if the NFL handed out franchises and put shovels in the ground tomorrow.
With the arrival of additional non-traditional broadcasting companies to offer broadcasting rights and legal bets throughout North America, the value of franchise companies is expected to continue to rise. The same is true of construction and real estate costs in southern Ontario.
How much is too much before it becomes unaffordable?
The NFL, meanwhile, may be more interested in other U.S. markets and Europe, where an expansion of eight teams could mean a European division with teams in the UK and Germany.
With Canada, the league already has a strong, committed fanbase that buys tons of NFL merchandise, a population that provides financial support to teams in three of its markets (Buffalo, Detroit and Seattle) and a strong presence on broadcasts.
It really does not need Toronto to conquer Canada.
But you can be sure that if the NFL formally starts down the expansion path, there will be people on this side of the border trying to crush the numbers and convince them otherwise.