A Tale of One City, Two Tracks

July 20, 2017

Thoroughbreds off at The Spa, Big Day at The Harness

by John Furgele (The Reliable 228)

Tis the season, everybody.  On Friday, July 21 the 149th season of racing will begin at Saratoga Race Course.  And, for the 149th time, there will be no shortage of quality at the 40-day meet.  Unlike other race courses, there is no buildup to the big races.  On Saturday, the $500,000 Diana Stakes comes right up and hits you in the face.  The race features Lady Eli, who made a remarkable recovery from laminitis to continue her racing career.  Sunday features the $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks.  Other tracks, like Del Mar, will pretend to have more stakes races, but no track features more races with purses over $100,000 than the place that opened in 1864; the place they call the Saratoga Race Course.

The highlights are plentiful.  The Whitney, Alabama, Jim Dandy, Woodward, the newly renamed Allen Jerkens (formerly the King’s Bishop), and of course the signature race of the meet, The Travers; a race that could feature the three winners of the Triple Crown races.  If all things go well, we could see Always Dreaming (Kentucky Derby), Cloud Computing (Preakness) and Tapwrit (Belmont Stakes) go at it in the Midsummer Derby.  The chance of that happening will depend on which prep races are chosen and of course, the health of the horses.

Saratoga is unique in many ways with one being a six-day racing week.  While many tracks look for days to cut races, the Spa goes to the post six times and in all honesty if they could run seven times per week, they likely would.  It’s a 40-day meet that ends on Labor Day and it goes fast.  Don’t be one of those that think you have plenty of time to get there because before you can blink, the meet ends and the horses head back to Belmont.

You see it all at Saratoga; diehard racing fans, people who know nothing about racing, pretty girls and pretty dresses, handsome guys with handsome suits and everything else in between.  There truly is something for everybody.

But, Saratoga is not a one trick pony—pun intended.  Literally across the street on Nelson Avenue sits Saratoga Hotel Casino, which is home to a harness track.  The “half-mile,” is in its 76th year and gets very little attention during its season and even less during the “Flat Track” meet.  To that point, the Albany Times Union no longer prints entries and results, but the track, buoyed by video gaming machines fights on with a schedule that runs from February to December.  When a few co-workers asked me if I was excited for the upcoming track season, I coyly replied that “the track’s been open since February.”

Saturday is perhaps the biggest racing day of the year at “Saratoga Harness,” featuring the $260,000 Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace.  The race features eight pacers, all accomplished and all taking aim at the $130,000 first place prize.  Last year, 2015 Horse of the Year Wiggleit Jiggle It won it and this year, the favorite is likely to be Sintra, but he will be joined by Yonkers star Somewhere in LA, Boston Red Rocks, Mach It So, the Levy winner Keystone Velocity, Molson Pace winner Bit of a Legend N, as well as All Bets Off and Clear Vision.  All eight have great resumes and this should not only be a good race, but a good betting race as well.

The card also features four divisions of the New York Sires Stakes, four divisions of the New York Excelsior series, and two $25,000 Open Handicaps.  The Open Pace features Dr. J Hanover.  All he did was pace the fastest mile ever on Canadian soil when he stopped the clock in 1:46.4 at Mohawk in June.  He will face stiff competition from Western Fame (1:51.0) and Luck Be Withyou (1:49.3).

The Open Trot is just as solid with Red Hot Herbie, Cash Me Out and Gural Hanover leading the way.  In all, 14 races, all solid and all important as Harness racing inches closer to its biggest day, the Hambletonian on Saturday, August 5.

Is Saturday a day to do the double dip?  How many will head to the Race Course in the afternoon and then saunter over to the Harness Track at night?  There will be some, but not that many.  There are very few that follow both Horse and Harness racing.  As chronicled in the past, those that follow the thoroughbreds take pride in ignoring standardbreds with the feeling being mutual.  For some reason, a line is drawn in the sand.  If you like one, you can’t like the other.  In some ways, it’s like the fan who says that they root for the Yankees and the Mets.

I can see the respective points.  I am a fan of both, but it’s tough to follow both.  As my interest in Harness racing has grown, I find it tough to watch both styles.  The case in point are the Saturday features.  In the Diana, the only horse I really have a bead on is Lady Eli.  I can pretend to know the others but the truth of the matter is I haven’t seen any of the others race.  On the other hand, for the Gerrity, I have seen all eight race more than once and feel that I could give an honest account from both a preview and handicap perspective.  As we know, the Harness horse races more often.  We’re almost seven months into 2017 and the Gerrity will be the 23rd race of the year for Somewhere in LA; the 19th for Clear Vision and the 15th for Bit of a Legend N.  If you like seeing horses run then Harness racing may suit your palate.  If you like seeing the sheer power, beauty, speed and grace then Thoroughbred racing will best suit your palate.

I still believe that you don’t have to choose; that you can like both. We know that this weekend Saratoga Race Course will demand and command the spotlight, but the track on Nelson Avenue offers a very strong and powerful counterpunch.  If the local media was truly dedicated to covering big events then all would send crews to the Harness track for the Gerrity.  That won’t happen, but that won’t take away from a very good race on a very good card of races at “Saratoga Harness.”  In sum, it’s a big day—a big day for both tracks.

The Meadowlands Pace is Here

July 15, 2017

The Hambletonian may be bigger, but this day ain’t too shabby

by John Furgele (The Trusted 228)

In my last column, I spoke of how the sport of Harness racing needs the Meadowlands to continue its relevance going forward.  This Saturday provides the evidence as to why this is so.  With the Hambletonian about three weeks away, The Big M is getting ready with an outstanding night of races.  In all, there are 13 races on the card; nine of which have purses of over $100,000.  Some of the Saturday races serve as preps for the Hambo and Hambo Oaks while others are just big-money races designed to attract the best trotters and pacers in North America.

Last year, Marion Marauder won the Trotting Triple Crown and unlike many great horses and for other reasons too, his Canadian owners did not retire him.  He will race in the $458,750 Hambletonian Maturity.  He showed his class last week in a win at The Big M and will be the betting favorite in the Maturity.  With more than 10 in the race, the distance will be 1 1/8 miles, which only adds to the intrigue.  MM won the Graduate last week in 1:51.2 and won easily, so he looks ready and raring to go Saturday.  The field is solid but not spectacular; could Trolley be a threat?  Other than him, I don’t see anybody stopping Marion Marauder in this one.  And, the best thing is that we as fans get to see a champion horse race past the age of three and thus far, Marion Marauder has not disappointed.

The other $400,000 plus race is the William Haughton Memorial, also at 1 1/8 miles.  This race lacks a superstar, but from top to bottom provides a very solid field.  If you’re a fan of horses that always try but don’t win, you have to root for Boston Red Rocks.  He finishes second all the time, including last week at the Meadowlands.  Earlier this year he finished second at Mohawk to Dr. J Hanover and all the “Doctor” did was race the fastest mile on Canadian soil in 1:46.4.  And, it wasn’t easy as Boston Red Rocks was right there on his heels.  “Rocks” has earned over $156,000 this year in his nine starts which show zero wins, five places and two shows.  Saturday could be his night to finally get into the win column, but he will have formidable foes for sure.

All Bets Off, Lyons Snyder, Rock N Roll World, Bettor’s Edge, Clear Vision, Dealt A Winner, Rockeyed Optimist, Check Six and Mel Mara have all paced sub 1:50 miles this year; if the track is right, look out as the winning time could dip under 1:48.

The Meadowlands Pace is the feature.  It is the scheduled for a 9:40 pm start time and will be broadcast live on SNY, the home for New York sports.  Huntsville is the morning line favorite and he will be the one that the wise guys will try to beat.  Who can beat him?  For starters, Talent Soup could; last week he romped in 1:48.4 over the Big M track and looked like he had plenty left in the tank.  The rest of the field is very good and features Downbytheseaside, which to me is the only other threat if everybody brings their A game.  The pace is not really a prep for the Pacing Triple Crown, but it is restricted for three-year-olds.  The Pacing Triple Crown is comprised of the Cane Pace, the Messenger Stakes and the Little Brown Jug with the Cane Pace kicking things off on Hambletionian Day.

Last year, Pace Day drew over 10,000 to the Big M and handled (all sources) over $4.2 million.  The attendance record of $42,612 will not be threatened, but today, the handle is bigger because of the easy access people have to wagering.  In today’s Harness racing world it is better to have an HD stream than it is to have freshly painted seats in the grandstand. Most people watch Harness racing to make some money and the better the online product is, the more they will watch and wager.  While tracks often lament over ways to get people to come to the track, they should be grateful that we—and they—live in an era that we do.  In the old days, you had to go to the track or go to a simulcast center; now, you watch and bet on your phone.  I don’t know what’s more frustrating to the modern Harness racing fan—lack of live tellers at the track or a grainy picture on your computer or phone?

Tracks like Yonkers and the Meadowlands have stellar online production with HD and clear views of the track.  On the other hand, the grain can still be seen by Saratoga Casino Hotel’s production.  In today’s world, that really is unacceptable.  Most tracks have a variety of ways to view their product.  At places like Yonkers and the Meadowlands, you can watch off of their website; for the others you go through your betting portal like Twin Spires, Capital OTB, Interbets or TVG.  I subscribe to a bunch just in case one is on the fritz.  For tracks like Freehold, which offer simulcasting when there is no live racing, one wonders how much longer that can last.  We know that Harness Racing skews to older men and we all assume that these guys never touch a computer, but eventually they will or sadly, will die.  When this happens, will anybody drive to Freehold in July to watch and bet on races when they can do it from the Smartphone?

I am getting off point here; the point is Saturday will be a great day for Harness racing.  We all know that Thoroughbred racing gets more attention, but how many cards at thoroughbred tracks are this good on a big day?  We know that Churchill Downs will load up stakes races on Derby Day, but what about Stephen Foster Handicap day?  Theirs is no way those cards are better than what you will get this Saturday or on August 5 on Hambletonian Day—not in any way, shape or form.

Saturday is one of racing’s big days—Meadowlands Pace Day and here’s hoping that the races live up to the hype.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Need the Meadowlands!

July 12, 2017

Most harness tracks are buoyed by slots, the Meadowlands is not, but it remains the sport’s most important venue.

by John Furgele (The Objective 228)

Last Sunday was July 9 and believe it or not, the days are getting shorter.  Nobody in the Northeast likes to hear this of course, but it means that time continues to march on, regardless of our begging.  This Sunday also marks four weeks until the Hambletonian takes place at Meadowlands Racetrack.  We all know that harness racing divides its horses into pacers and trotters, so to say the Hambletonian is the biggest day of the year in Harness racing is a bit unfair to the pacers (who, by the way are faster), but it is in fact, a truth.

Both Horse and Harness racing have their ebbs and flows.  One thing both suffer from is a lack of a national organization/governing body.  There is no NHL, NBA, MLB, NBA or MLS for the horses, so each state does its own thing.  That said, we have the Hambletonian Society which governs the Hambletonian and the Breeders Crown, but we also have states that make their rules as well.  This results in the best horses competing in different parts of the country.

The Hambletonian, as we mentioned, has been contested at the Meadowlands since 1981.  It’s still the best track in America and still generates the highest handle of any Standardbred racetrack.  Sure there are problems; owner Jeffrey Gural insists in lengthy stays in detention barns for horses in an attempt to keep drugs out of the sport.  He can do that for races such as the Meadowlands Pace, which they govern, but the Hambletonian is not governed by him or his racetrack. Despite the squabbles it is a fabulous day of racing with 10 stakes races carded for August 5.  In addition to the Hambo, there is the Hambletonian Oaks, the Sam McKee U.S. Pacing Championship, the Cane Pace, the Doherty, the Haughton, the Shady Daisy, the Cashman, the Fresh Yankee and Lady Liberty—all in one day; impressive to say the least.

The Meadowlands Pace is set for Saturday, July 15, but because of the track’s detention policy, Fear the Dragon, the Pepsi North America Cup winner will not be competing.  The colt’s owner, Bruce Togdan doesn’t think the policy is fair; he called Meadowlands a “B” track.  Gural responded by defending the policy and was sure to point out that the Meadowlands suffers from lack of alternative gaming at the facility.  As we all know, Meadowlands purses are down, or put another way lower because there is no alternative gaming at the facility.  Yonkers, which is just 21 miles away, offers significantly higher purses which are supplemented by revenues derived from the Empire City Casino.

It is a quagmire to be sure.  Yonkers will have a $55,000 Open Handicap Pace on a Saturday night with $35,000 in handle while the Meadowlands will feature a $16,000 Open race and handle over $200,000.  Gural is quick to point out that he needs alternative gaming at the Meadowlands; a measure that was soundly defeated by New Jersey voters in last fall’s election.  The residents felt it was more important to limit casinos to Atlantic City and the result has been tough for the Meadowlands to swallow.

Some have called the 2017 Summer meet at the Big M, “Freehold Plus,” but the track, with its one mile oval continues to be the star.  There are more sub 1:50 paces and sub 1:52 trots there than anywhere else and as we know, bettors like the track and don’t seem to mind that the purses are lower as are the quality of the horses.  They want a race to be fair; a race where all horses have a shot not just those closest to the pylons.

If you’re a fan of Harness Racing, you need the Meadowlands to not just survive, but flourish.  Comparing it to Churchill Downs might be too strong, but its impact on the sport of Harness racing should never be overlooked.  We all know that Yonkers, Pocono and the other tracks are not going to show any sympathy for the Big M, and if the situation ever arises, the Hambletonian Society can always move its signature race to another venue.  The Breeders Crown moves around so why couldn’t the Hambletonian do the same?

I am not sure what the answer is?  Could there ever be VGMs at the Meadowlands?  They are machines and are not the same as table games played at the Atlantic City casinos.  Would Gural even want that?  He owns two harness tracks in New York State; he has VGMs at Vernon Downs and a full-fledged casino at Tioga.  Would he be happy with 1,000 gaming machines at the Meadowlands, or would he want more?

Voters seem to think the Gural should make do with wagering on horses.  Last fall, the proposal to amend the state constitution and allow casinos in Northern New Jersey failed badly by a 78% to 22% margin.  It cannot be proposed until 2018 at the earliest, but with numbers that bad, which state legislator would want to bring it up again?

It’s sad to see the Meadowlands struggle. This is the track that changed the game of Harness racing.  I’m sure the financials are better than Gural is telling us, because $2 million in handle is $2 million in handle and purses used to be based on handle and handle alone.  Places like Yonkers have higher purses, but their purses are based on a proportion of revenues from the gaming machines.  Is that good or bad?  And, what happens if the New York State government alters those percentages? What if the gaming machines experience a sharp decline in revenues, or heaven forbid, what if they were taken out like they were in Canada’s Fort Erie Racetrack?

In four weeks, Harness racing will be at its best.  It will be Hambletonian Day at the Meadowlands with 10 stakes races, a huge handle and over 20,000 people in attendance.  The sport will look great, it will shine, but how many fans will make Hambletonian Day the only day that they attend or even pay attention to Harness racing?  There are many that think Harness racing needs to do a better job of marketing itself; of trying to get the 20 and 30 somethings to come back to the track more than once a year.  What can be done?  The horsemen want every available dollar spent on purses, but the only way to generate more handle is to get more people to bet on the races.  It’s a double-edged sword and is something that many tracks still haven’t figured out.

I still think the sport sells itself.  Seeing eight to ten pacers/trotters competing against each other should be enough and I think millennials should be able to relate to it.  They don’t want to watch three plus hour baseball games or basketball games.  They can go to You Tube and watch all the key plays in five to seven minutes.  A horse race should cater to their mindsets.  The time in between should cater to their anticipation, but we know that isn’t what’s happening.

The Hambletonian is a great day, but it shouldn’t be the only great day.

Just The Beginning

May 24, 2017

Horse Racing Heating Up Now

by John Furgele (The Fairest 228 of All)

If you love horse racing, this is the best time of the year, and that excludes Saratoga, which opens July 21.  Let’s review some exciting things that we have seen and hope to see going forward.

We’ll start with the Kentucky Derby.  It wasn’t a great race as Always Dreaming cruised to victory over a game Lookin at Lee.  Those two were the only horses moving forward at the wire; the others struggling to get there.   Trainer Todd Pletcher picked up his second win and jockey John Velazquez also picked up his second.  As we know, it was the first time that this long-time tandem won the Derby together.

Two weeks later, we had the Preakness at aging Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore and again saw how tough it is to win a Triple Crown in this great sport.  As expected, Always Dreaming and Classic Empire dueled from the start.  They cut sensible fractions and it looked like a thrilling stretch run was in the forecast.  But, sitting chilly and in a great stalking position was Cloud Computing, ridden by Javier Castellano.  As Always Dreaming faded, perhaps Classic Empire let down his guard and in the end, we got a great stretch run with the Chad Brown trained “CC” picking up the win.  If it’s a big race, I like having Castellano in the saddle.  He kept his cool and when it was time to make his move, he did so effortlessly and graciously.

Cloud Computing had enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby and credit must be given to Brown here.  I don’t know too many owners that would skip the Kentucky Derby for the Preakness.  For most owners, the dream is to have a horse that qualifies for the most prestigious race in the world, but Brown knew something.  The easy call would be to enter the Derby, but Brown was able to tell the right story to the two owners of CC,  “Hey, it would be great to run the Derby, but I think we can win the Preakness.”  It certainly helped that one of the owners grew up going to Pimlico and the thrill for him to win a race in his backyard helped Brown make his case.  Classic races are classic races just like majors are majors in golf and tennis, but winning the PGA Championship and the French Open compared to The Masters and Wimbledon are different.  Brown was able to convince his clients that a PGA Championship is a major, just like The Masters is and the owners bought in and the result was garnering the Black Eyed Susans that go to the Preakness winner.

There are easy stories to do and then there are stories that are even easier.  An example would be when news stations cover the soup kitchen dishing out 400 turkey dinners on Thanksgiving; the first day of school; and the mall on Black Friday.  Every Preakness week, we get the old “Is this the last Preakness to be contested at Pimlico?”  Some phrase it differently of course, but it seems inevitable that the day will come when the Preakness moves to Laurel Park, 30 miles southwest of Baltimore.  There is a state law that says if the Preakness is run in Maryland; it must be run in Baltimore.  But, the law has a natural loophole in it.  The race could be moved out of state—to Gulfstream—or it could be moved out of the country—to Woodbine—two tracks that are owned by the Stronach Group.  When push comes to shove, the Maryland General Assembly will amend its law to keep the race in the Old Line State.

Pimlico is the second oldest thoroughbred track in the United States, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimates that Old Hilltop needs up to $500 million in refurbishments to remain viable.  The Stronach Group has stated that they will not pay a cent for this, so where is the money going to come from?  Can we expect the taxpayers to contribute to a facility that is in a bad, crime-infested section of Baltimore and only races 12 days per year?  The Stronach Group has already done major refurbishments to Laurel Park and truth-be-told, that’s where they want the race to be.  But, like everything, there are political ramifications to consider going forward.  I predict that a phase out plan will be implemented to give all those involved a time to mourn and a time to celebrate Pimlico’s greatness.  Laurel has already secured a Breeder’s Cup, and if an owner wants to close a business, shouldn’t they be allowed to?  The answer is not that simple because horse racing is heavily regulated by the government, but it appears that the future of the Preakness is at Laurel.

Americans tuned in for both races.  The Derby scored a 10.5 rating and 23 share while the Preakness did a 4.9/11.  There’s always a drop off but still, the Preakness was the highest rated sporting event of Saturday, May 20.

Next up is the Belmont Stakes, the grueling 1.5 mile trek around cavernous Belmont Park, better known as Big Sandy.  The ratings will likely drop off with no Triple Crown on the line and moreover, no rematch between the Derby and Preakness winners as Cloud Computing is an almost certainty to miss the race.  Still, it is a classic American race and if you call yourself a sports fan, you’ll be watching.

The Pimlico Special was contested on Black Eyed Susan Day and the venerable Shaman Ghost powered home to win the 1 3/16 mile race, which is the same distance as the Preakness.  Shaman Ghost continues to add impressive stakes wins to his already nice racing resume.

The Black Eyed Susan Stakes was won by the Jason Servis trained Actress and while the BES doesn’t measure up to the Kentucky Oaks, it’s a nice win nonetheless.

The Preakness continues to draw fans to Pimlico and in recent years, the marketing of Black Eyed Susan Day is beginning to pay off.  There were over 50,000 fans in attendance to go along with a record crowd of 150,000 plus on Saturday.  When and if the Preakness leaves Baltimore for Laurel, it will be sad because the Preakness event is something to behold.  Once the race gets to Laurel, it will undoubtedly be more of a corporate affair with higher priced tickets, luxury boxes and no infield admissions.  But, I suppose that’s the modern evolution of sports; draw less, charge more and ultimately, make more money.

Patch Determined To See It Through

May 3, 2017

by Olivia Furgele, Special Contributor to the 228

There are 20 Horses in Kentucky Derby 143, But One is Special

The Kentucky Derby is a race for all Americans.  Each year, 20 horses are allowed to run in the race.  This year, there is one horse that is different than the others.  His name is Patch and like the rest, is three years old. Last year Patch developed an ulcer in his left eye. They tried to treat it, but sadly, it had to be removed.  This puts him at an disadvantage in the race.  He won’t be able to see horses coming on his left.  The oddsmakers do not think Patch has a good chance to win.  He is expected to be given odds of 35-1.

My father is obsessed with horse racing and because of him, I became interested in it. This is a great story because once people hear about Patch and his one eye, many will be rooting for him to win this big race.  I found this story interesting because it is very hard to make it to the Kentucky Derby, let alone making it with such a severe disadvantage. Watch this Satrurday to see if Patch can pull it off.

Olivia Furgele is the daughter of John “The Real 228,” Furgele and though she is reluctant to say it, likes her father.

Pressure for the Pegulas

April 22, 2017

They saved the Bills and Sabres, but it’s time to start winning

by John Furgele (The Only Known 228).

Buffalo sports are struggling and to be really honest, both the Sabres and Bills are dysfunctional.  The Sabres and the Bills are owned by the same person, Terry Pegula.  He is a brilliant businessman who made his fortune in the fracking industry.  He has the money and smarts to run a business, but is quickly finding that owning sports teams is a much different animal.

The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, and thanks to the Toronto Blue Jays (2015 and 2016), are now the holders of the longest playoff drought in North America sports.  He hired Rex Ryan, then after two seasons, sent him packing and off to ESPN.  General manager Doug Whaley appears to be on thin ice as evidenced by less of him and more of new coach Sean McDermott in press circles and such. Like most teams that struggle to make the NFL playoffs, the Bills have not found the quarterback—that guy—to lead them to victories and ultimately, playoff success.  The New England Patriots may be the league’s envy, but check out their 1990 squad and you’ll understand why finding the guy is paramount.

The Sabres are also struggling.  Hockey is different than football.  Even though the Bills remain more popular than the Sabres based on TV ratings and overall fandom, the Sabres might be followed more by Western New Yorkers.  Football is played once a week, making it easy for what is called appointment television.  The smart person can plan their week accordingly—get the chores down, take the kids here and there, grocery shop, cut the lawn and be ready for the 1 pm/4:25 pm Sunday kickoff.  For the most part, watching a Bills game takes no more than four hours per week.

With hockey, people monitor the team more.  They can’t watch all 82 games, but they will read about the team, watch highlights and listen to talk radio to and from work.  Naturally, the TV ratings won’t be as high, but hockey in WNY is like a warm plate of meatloaf, green beans and mashed potatoes.  It’s not the best meal you’ll eat, but it’s comforting and satisfying.  The Sabres help the people of WNY get through long, cold and gray winters; they are there when you need them.  You may be running all over town with your kids, your job and your life, but if there is a three-hour window on a Tuesday night, you might fit some hockey in.

The Bills play 16 games and the season is over before you can really process it.  The hockey season is 82 games and seems to never end.  The calendar hits March and the end appears to be in sight, but in reality, there are still seven weeks left, and if lucky, playoffs.  In some ways, WNY is better off with a good Sabres team than they are with a good Bills team.  That said a Super Bowl championship will generate 100 more times the publicity, but hockey may be more imbedded in WNY culture than football.

The Pegulas came here as saviors.  When Tim and John Rigas went to jail, Tom Golisano stepped in as a temporary expedient.  He stabilized things and then the Pegulas rode in to make Buffalo a Stanley Cup winner.  So far it’s been rough sledding.  The Sabres tanked for two seasons, got the number two prized phenom in Jack Eichel and should have turned the corner by now.  But, building a winning culture is easier said than done.

Some of the luster has come off the Pegula shine.  Fans will only be grateful for so long; they will not blindly support the team forever.  Eventually, they will stop buying their season tickets and the people that attend three games per year will attend two, then one, then none.  Fans have defended the Pegulas because they saved the teams and prevented the Bills and Sabres from becoming the Chargers and Thrashers, but that wears out too.  That save the team stuff goes on for a limited amount of time before the owner becomes persona non grata when the losing–and dysfunction– continues.

The next five to 10 years will be very interesting for the Pegulas.  It’s imperative that they win and win sooner than later because there’s a giant elephant that’s lurking in the Green Room.  We know that the Bills need a new stadium to replace the aging New Era Field.  It has perhaps the finest sight lines of any stadium, but seating is cramped, the concourses more cramped and it lacks the bathrooms and comforts of the modern day palaces that exist today.  Bills fans are hard core, but younger fans want Wi-Fi, huge concourses and access to other things going on besides the football game.  If it’s cold, they want to go somewhere comfortable to be warm.  If the game is dull, they want to grab a gourmet coffee or frap and be able to watch other games and do other things. They want to be able to use the bathroom and not miss game action.   To put this in perspective, the old Wembley Stadium in London had 200 bathrooms and 90,000 seats; the new one has 2,000 bathrooms and 90,000 seats.  The average fan will say that “there ain’t nothing wrong with New Era,” but the reality says otherwise.

Assuming the Bills are playing in a new palace by 2024 or 2025, guess what?  The KeyBank Center will be 28 years old, will become outdated and will need to be——replaced.  Where is the money coming from? We know that the Pegulas and the leagues will want, if not demand public funding, but two new playpens in such a short time?  People will probably think I’m crazy, but this dilemma is a real one.  If the Pegulas were smart, they would be pining for a new football stadium now to bridge the gap before they ask for a new hockey arena.

What are the chances that both teams are here for the long-term without new places to play and make money?  Oh, Buffalo has a Triple A baseball stadium that will have to be replaced too.  Before Camden Yards, there was Pilot Field, which opened to rave reviews in 1988.  If the football and hockey teams want money to build new stadiums, why can’t the minor league baseball get some money too?  The Bisons are a minor league team, but they play 72 home games per year and they provide a nice summer diversion.  They’re not supported like the Bills and Sabres, but does anybody in WNY want to see them leave?

Winning makes it easier to get legislation through, but as these stadiums become billion dollar projects, there will be stiff opposition; stiffer if the teams aren’t winning.  Could you imagine Pegula asking for a new stadium right now?

Ticket prices also factor into the equation.  Sports are marketed so much differently today than they were back in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.  In those days, you catered to the hard core sports fan; now you need the fringe fan and more importantly, you need the fringe fan with money.  In reality, you need the fringe fan that owns a company or works for one that is willing to plunk down six figures for the right to go to these sporting events.  The cost of attending a sporting event has risen enormously to the point of shutting out the person that makes $60,000 per year. These people can’t afford to attend the games, yet will be asked to help finance new places to play the games they can’t get near.

With the firing of their coach and general manager, the Sabres—again–are reorganizing and for now, that’s the headline.  The fans of WNY will discuss who should be the next coach and general manager and if the Sabres should hire a president to oversee the operation.  That’s the story—the shallow story.  But, deep down there’s more on the line.  Are the Sabres in peril?  Are the Bills in peril?  Right now, the answer is no, but before you blink it will be 2022 and the Bills will be in peril.  And, soon after, it will be 2025, and the Sabres will be in peril.  Both will need new stadiums to compete economically with the other teams as well as for the services of the free agents that will be looking for big money and big facilities.  New Era Field is already lacking and soon, so too, will KeyBank Center.

I’m sure the Pegulas know this and have planned for it, but part of me wonders if they really knew what they were getting in to.  The fracking business is as much about politics as sports, but sports is played out in public whereas the fracking stuff went on in board rooms and back rooms.  Sports are different.  People buy sports teams for many reasons.  Some love being lauded by the public, others love the power, while others love being part of an exclusive club of just 30 or 32 members.  All owners have egos; nobody wants to be the bad owner, the owner who never wins or the owner that is hated by the public.  Sure, it goes with the territory, but every owner was successful before they bought a sports team.  Many have never failed, but then, they buy a football team that can’t make the playoffs or hockey team that can’t squeak into the playoffs as an eight seed.  More than half the NHL teams make the playoffs, but Buffalo remains one of the 47 percent that don’t.

The Pegulas were once hailed as saviors to the point where downtown was called Pegulaville.  The era of good feelings is over; it’s time for the Pegulas to show that they can operate a successful sports franchise (or 2) and they have to start doing it now.

They have ten years.

 

 

 

 

 

Wichita State Moves Forward

April 8, 2017

by John Furgele (Your 228)

Tough to leave history behind, but Shockers needed to move.

Here we go again, or is it?  A few years ago, the conference realignment/shuffling game was at full speed.  The ACC stole teams as did the Big Ten, Pac 12 and SEC.  The Big 12 lost two teams, then went out and stole West Virginia and Texas Christian to get back to uh….10 teams.  These moves resulted in the old Big East (16 teams) becoming the new Big East with the new edition stealing three teams from three different conferences.

Yesterday, the American Athletic Conference (a newer conference) invited Wichita State to become a member for basketball and all sports.  The Shockers do not field a football team and despite some people calling for one, football is not on the table of discussion.  For the AAC, this is a great move.  The Shocker basketball program has enjoyed tremendous success under coach Gregg Marshall.  In 2013, they reached the Final Four and gave eventual champion Louisville all they could handle before bowing.

The 16-17 team went 31-5 but could only muster a 10 seed for the NCAA tournament.  While we all know that wasn’t fair, it told the brass at the university that if winning a title was ever going to happen, they might have to look for a better conference.  The Missouri Valley Conference has always been a solid basketball conference, but in recent years, has slipped to what we call a traditional mid-major.  In earlier years, two and sometimes three teams were invited to the NCAA tournament, but this year, only Wichita State got in.  Illinois State was on the cusp, but despite 28 wins, they had to settle for the NIT.  Given that the Shockers were only a 10 seed, what would have happened had they not won the MVC Tournament?

The American Athletic Conference top-to-bottom is better.  That said, only SMU and Cincinnati played in the tournament this season.  SMU lost a first round game while Cincinnati bowed out in Round 2.   Houston was its third best team, going 12-6 and 21-11 and Central Florida was fourth at 11-7 and 21-11.  The Knights advanced to the NIT Final Four under coach Johnny Dawkins and appear to be a program on the rise.

The conference does have great pedigree.  Connecticut has won four NCAA titles, Memphis has had deep runs in the NCAA tournament and Temple has also enjoyed tournament success, and unlike the MVC, the league has teams in major metro areas.  Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Orlando, Tampa, New Orleans, Hartford, Memphis, Dallas, Houston are something that the MVC cannot match.  Furthermore, the AAC has a much better television deal.  Games are all over the ESPN networks, while the MVC is not. In fact, the MVC is regional only.  If you live near a MVC city, you’ll get their games, if not; it ‘s ESPN 3 or another online stream.  This is where having football helps.  Football is the king as we all know, and having it insures that games will be broadcast because networks need inventory.  The AAC is in a good spot.  They can tell a network that they can broadcast our football games, but you have to broadcast our basketball teams too.  Conferences like the MVC simply can’t wield that power.

One of the reasons why the old Big East disintegrated was that the football schools and basketball-only schools were at odds.  The result was a bloated 16-team league for basketball, but fewer schools for football.  The football schools were making more money, yet they had to share those monies with those who didn’t play. That led to the basketball schools breaking away and keeping the name, while the football schools formed the AAC, stole some schools from Conference USA and began anew.

The league now has 12 schools for football and 12 schools for basketball.  In football, Navy plays to give the AAC two six-team divisions which at the time was the required number needed to stage a conference title game.  Wichita State gives the basketball conference 12 schools and at this time, the fit seems like a good one.  The one thing the AAC can’t do is to start this football and basketball only thing going forward.  There is no need to require Wichita State to field a football team, but they can’t go out and invite another school for just football or just basketball.  That would be a recipe for disaster.

For now, it is a win-win.  The Shockers will undoubtedly enhance the basketball profile.  They also do well in other sports.  Baseball has slipped, but at one time, the Shockers were a perennial threat, in fact, they won the 1989 NCAA championship.  The AAC sponsors 15 championships which include men’s and women’s soccer, something that Wichita State doesn’t offer.  Will Wichita State add some sports or will be they content to stay where they’re at?  That will be determined in the future, but right now, both the AAC and Wichita State University have to happy with their new arrangement.

Navy has helped the conference as a football-only member and Wichita State will help the conference as a member even without a football team.  Wichita has a population of 386,000 with a metro area of 644,000.  It’s not big, but it’s not tiny either.  And, because of their success, people will follow them much like we follow Gonzaga.  The Zags have proven that in basketball, you can play with the big boys despite being small and moreover, playing in a small conference.  For the Shockers, the MVC was too small, but the AAC is the right size and that’s what they needed and that’s what they got.

 

 

 

For Most Colleges, Football Can Kill

April 5, 2017

Football and Basketball Matter, the Others Are Expendable

by John Furgele (The Real 228)

On Monday, the University at Buffalo dropped four intercollegiate sports. Getting the axe were men’s soccer, baseball, men’s swimming and diving and women’s rowing. In the end, it is about football and basketball at the collegiate level. These are the sports that people care about. Those are the sports that make kids want to apply to schools. They drive the bus. Swimming, soccer, baseball, track, cross country, golf, tennis and the rest are ways to attract students, and get more students to pay to go to school. These sports rarely offer full athletic scholarships, so it requires students to fork over varying degrees of money to pay for their educations. Students and the community do not flock to these events either, so none of them will ever make money for a university or college. Yet, these sports are often subsidized by the students and in many situations, funds from a general pool. All of the students help fund the teams, yet very few of them go to the games.

In some ways, it is like cable TV. Your grandma watches the Hallmark Channel every day. She pays $120 per month to Spectrum, not knowing that $7.25 of that goes to ESPN, a channel she can’t even find. And, today, we are seeing millions of people cutting the cord to cable and we are seeing ESPN struggle with the drop in revenues. At Buffalo, the school relies on a high percentage of student subsidies to fund athletics. Eventually, the students might start complaining.

Colleges are supposed to educate and train people for careers. They are supposed to use monies for that purpose. But, colleges believe that they have to do more than just educate; they have to entertain, and sports is a big part of that in their opinion. In Europe this doesn’t happen. There are sports clubs that take care of that, leaving colleges to do what they are supposed to. I have never read about the soccer team at The Sorbonne. Universities want to create a culture and a diversion so students will graduate and serve as a lifelong marketer. Sports can help. North Carolina alums are still giddy over seeing their alma mater capture the NCAA basketball championship.

It’s a fundamental and problematic issue. Schools want to have sports, and in particular, football and baseball because they want in on the money pie that they think is there. It is there, of course, but only for the precious few; the Michigans, Alabamas, Ohio States and LSUs of the world. Most schools, like Buffalo, San Jose State, Kent State, and Marshall never see a profit. They run athletics at a deficit and hope that they can make it up in other areas. When it gets too bad, they do what Buffalo did—they cut some sports to show that they are trying to balance the balance sheet. If that doesn’t work, they cut an academic program, which further infuriates. And, they have to try; they can’t just keep spending without any sort of belt tightening. But, football (and basketball) are the only sports at colleges where season tickets are sold, where luxury seating is sold and donations are sought for. The Orange Club at Syracuse does not exist because people in Central New York are itching to go to men’s soccer or women’s volleyball games. It exists because football and basketball can draw crowds of 50 and 30 thousand. Supply and Demand.

SUNY schools have never been known for passionate student support. Buffalo is not Duke. Binghamton is not Gonzaga and Albany is not Villanova. The truth is that Buffalo could be the class of MAC football and never sell out UB Stadium. The WNY community sees it the same way. They know Buffalo is a great university, but they would rather watch the Sabres and Bills on TV. They are a major league town. When the NCAA basketball tournament comes to town, it sells out, but when Baylor plays UB, good seats remain available. Can that be changed and if so, it is more than a monumental task to change it. Monumental. And, it’s not just at Buffalo. There are hundreds of universities grappling with the same thing.   They want to offer the sports, they want to be competitive, but they can’t make a profit and worse, they have to dip into other funding to support athletics.

Football will go through a major reorganization in the very near future. The money has become the wedge. There will come a time where the Power 5 schools will separate themselves from the Group 5 schools. The Group 5 schools will then merge with the FCS schools and they will create a 32-team playoff to go along with the 8-team playoff at the Power 5 level. The Power 5 level will call itself CFA Football and the G5/FCS level will call itself NCAA Football. The networks will love this because there will be plenty of inventory to go round and no longer will people get confused about the levels that make up college football. It is very hard to explain to a person that there are three levels of Division I football—Power 5, Group 5, and FCS. Two levels would be much easier. People understand the term mid-major, but very few casual fans understand P5, G5 and FCS. Trust me, I have tried to explain it and it is very difficult to do. Buffalo could win the NCAA Championship while Ohio State could clam the CFA title. There has already been talk within G5 schools of having a separate playoff, and even though it was dismissed—for now—where there is smoke, there is fire.

The problem will come with college basketball. The NCAA football schools might not want the CFA football schools to play in the Big Dance, but the discrepancy dollar-wise in football is so great that the divide has to be made official. For basketball, there can be peace and the 68-team tournament should continue as is. Furthermore, the networks will demand as such. This is a golden goose worth preserving. The NCAA schools will be mad, but they have too much to lose by separating in basketball.

NCAA schools would play CFA schools in football, but come playoff time, the Buffalo loss to Alabama won’t hurt them when the NCAA picks the teams for the 32-team playoff.

Change is hard, but something has to happen because the divide is not only wide, it is canyon like.

 

Don’t Cry for Oakland; They’ll Be Back

March 29, 2017

by John Furgele (The Exquisite 228)

It is official.  The Las Vegas Raiders have—or in 2019—will arrive.  It was just a matter of time before the NFL moved a team to what they call Sin City.  They let the NHL go first, but sadly, the Vegas Golden Knights will be a mere afterthought now that the NFL Raiders will soon be coming to town.

Everybody is feigning sadness.  How could the NFL do this?  The Oakland Raiders began play in the AFL in 1960 and after 57 years, it is over.  Sure, they moved to LA from 1982 to 1994, but we all knew that Al Davis wouldn’t stay there because Los Angeles was never going to build him a stadium.  So in 1995, he came back; back to the place he abandoned, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.  We know the Coliseum is not a good stadium.  It is the last of the multi-purpose playpens in North America.  In the 1970s, it was not unique.  The Raiders, Steelers, Bengals, and Eagles all played at these concrete jungles.

The Raiders were winners.  In the 1970s, they were perennial participants in AFC Championship Games.  If not for those darned Steelers, they might have won three or four Super Bowls.  That said they did well, ringing the bell in 1976, 1980 and 1983.  Those old enough recall the 1980 season when Davis was embroiled in a bitter battle with then commissioner Pete Rozelle.  This year, people drooled of the thought of Roger Goodell handing the Lombardi trophy to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, but Rozelle to Davis in 1980? That was not contrived.  That was real.  The men hated each other, were suing each other and when the Wild Card Raiders shellacked the Philadelphia Eagles, it happened.  When Rozelle presented the trophy to Davis after Super Bowl 15, the men shook hands and Davis, with his PT Barnum charm proclaimed that “This was our finest hour; this was the finest hour of the Oakland Raiders.”

The Raiders left for LA, but success continued.  Another Super Bowl title came in 1983 and eventually a return to Oakland and the Coliseum.  The return showcased the zany fans that inhabit the East Bay, but the team struggled.  There was a Super Bowl appearance in 2002, but much futility thereafter.  Davis aged and lost his touch and the Oakland Raiders became a laughingstock.  Minutes after he was laid to rest, his son, Mark began plotting a move.  He could have gone in with the 49ers and shared a stadium, but owners are greedy.  He wanted his own palace and he knew that the city of Oakland and the state of California weren’t going to give him one.

The move was a formality.  Today, if you want to be an NFL city, you have to give in to every demand of both the owners and the league.  The league says they value history, fans, and tradition, but then use words like untenable in describing cities with poor stadiums.  If Minnesota didn’t replace the Metrodome where would the Vikings be playing?  San Diego, another AFL pioneer wouldn’t build the team a new stadium, so owner Alex Spanos, who has a net worth of $2 billion left for a soccer stadium in Los Angeles.

The Buffalo Bills stadium goes back to 1973.  The team was recently purchased by Terry Pegula who is worth an estimated $4 billion.  He also owns the NHL Buffalo Sabres.  The league has already called New Era Field untenable and has begun putting pressure on the politicians and leaders that a new stadium must soon be in the offing.  The owner, careful not to offend a fan base that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since the 1999, says there is no pressure to build a new stadium right now.  But, we know that refrain will soon change, right Mr. Pegula?

That’s the way it goes in the NFL.  It is a league where you really have to play for pay. If you don’t give the owners what they want, they leave.  Look at St. Louis.  They tried to placate Stan Kroenke with plans for a replacement for a relatively new stadium that they had, but Stan the Man wanted the glitz of Los Angeles.  Poor St. Louis.  They have now lost two NFL teams in the Cardinals and the Rams.

The good news is that all is not lost for Oakland.  They will get another team someday.  Now that Oakland is available, it has never looked so good.  And, soon, they will begin flirting and wooing a prospective owner to its town.  Maybe it’s the Buffalo Bills, the Cincinnati Bengals or the Jacksonville Jaguars, but sooner than later, they will successfully court and land another team.

Baltimore lost the Colts, and got the Ravens.  Houston lost the Oilers, the greatest football team, and got the Texans.  Cleveland lost the Browns and got the Browns.  St. Louis lost the Cardinals and got the Rams, only to lose them, too.  Eventually, somebody in Oakland will build a $2 billion stadium with all the amenities and another NFL team will find its way to the East Bay.  They won’t be called the Raiders, but they will play in Oakland; it’s just a matter of time.

As long as there is money, there will be a team.  The NFL is excited about Las Vegas and unlike hockey, it is a can’t lose proposition.  The NFL shares TV revenue.  There is no such thing as local TV revenue, so it doesn’t matter how big Las Vegas is, or how many fans come to their games, because the league splits television revenues in 32 equal parts.  Green Bay works in football; it couldn’t work in basketball.

The NFL can have teams in Buffalo, Jacksonville, and Green Bay and certainly, Las Vegas.  Heck, if Des Moines, Iowa builds a $2.5 million stadium, they too, could attract an NFL franchise.  What would they be called?  The Des Moines Sentinels?  The Iowa Huskers?  Laugh now, but never be surprised and never say never.

Today, the Raiders lost a team and that is sad and wrong on many levels, but the sun may soon rise again in the East Bay.  All it takes is a disgruntled owner and some politicians who can find some funding streams.  Nashville took Houston and Indianapolis took Baltimore and then Baltimore, enraged as they were when Indy stole the Colts, went out and stole the Browns!

The NFL is all about The Shield.  But, there is a lot that goes on behind it and it’s all cutthroat all the time.

Today, we can cry for Oakland, but eventually Oakland will strike back.  Here’s hoping Buffalo, Jacksonville and others are sleeping with one eye open.

 

 

The NBA: We Rest Our Case

March 24, 2017

by John Furgele (The Authentic 228)

The issue of rest is the plague of the NBA these days. And, like wildfire, it has spread through the networks, providing the fodder that the unimaginative sports talkers need to fuel their shows.

What can be done is the cry? Should the NBA try their best to eliminate the dreaded back-to-backs that the million dollar players can’t seem to perform and participate in? The funny thing is that in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the Slick Watts’, Jack Sikmas and Kevin Johnsons’ of the basketball world seemed to be just fine, and they played for much less than the $30 million that LeBron James and others are playing for now.

Yes, there is science that is available today that was not around 20 to 40 years ago. Rest is important, travel affects the body and nutrition is a priority. In reading The Game by Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goalie talks of drinking cokes after games and practices, something that would never be done by today’s athletes.

When you play 82 games over six months, that’s 13.6 games per month on average. In the perfect world, there would be no back-to-backs, but NBA arenas are often shared with NHL teams, minor league teams, rodeos and tractor pulls as well as concerts, preachers, home shows and the like. Bon Jovi doesn’t want to play back-to-backs either, but if the arena is available Wednesday and Thursday, but not Friday, the Jersey rocker will have to go back-to-back.

The funny thing is that you don’t hear NHL players resting like their NBA counterparts despite the fact that both leagues play 82 games.  Why is that? Is the NHL player in better shape than the NBA player? Are they more dedicated to playing than their NBA counterparts? I don’t think so, but the NHL does something that the NBA does not—they start their season earlier.

The Buffalo Sabres started the 2016-2017 season on October 13. They will play 82 games over 178 days while the New York Knicks began their season on October 25 and will end on April 12. That’s 82 games over 169 days. Sure, it’s only a difference of nine days, but it is an issue. In truth, why can’t both leagues start their seasons in the first week of October and run through late April? It might not seem like a lot, but adding 30 days to the NBA and even 10 to 12 more days to the NHL certainly can’t hurt, can it?

The winter seasons are long–too long. We all know that, and because of the 82 game regular season, interest at a national level wanes. Yes, the Penguin fan living in Pittsburgh is going to watch as many of their games as they can, but the hockey fan in Milwaukee? They will jump in and out all year long, because 82 games is simply too much. Ideally, both leagues would play 60 games, but that will never happen. The 82 game schedules serve their purpose by keeping people employed, arenas filled, players paid and so on. So, cries of shortening the season are meaningless, because it’s never going to happen.

Lengthening the season calendar-wise is also risky. The season is long enough critics and fans say, so now you’re going to add to it?   But, if making the season longer ensures that the Currys, James, and Leonards will play more because they’re getting more rest has to be a positive for the league.

Fining teams isn’t going to work and neither is requiring them to play in the showcase games such as ABC Saturdays or TNT Thursdays. Coaches have a right to play and rest whomever they want. Their job is to win games and keep their owners happy and themselves employed. When a person buys a ticket to a game, there is no guarantee that all the players can and will play. Requiring teams to submit a doctor’s note proclaiming a real injury is also an example of living in Fantasyland.

Baseball teams give their players rest. In the old days, if you went to game on a Sunday, chances are you saw the “Sunday lineup,” which featured the backup catcher, backup infielders fourth outfielders. Ticket buyers knew this was the case and for the most part they accepted it. It is different in the NBA and NHL, but should it be? If Dusty Baker can rest Bryce Harper, why can’t Tyronn Lue rest LeBron James?

We all wish the players would be less self-absorbed; we would love to hear James say that he is playing in Milwaukee because this is the only time that Bucks fans will see me and my Cavs play, but due to that self-absorption, it isn’t going to happen.   The schedules, and now, the rest days are made in advance with the doctors and scientists. They study the body, the calendar and the cycle and if the best day to rest James is Saturday, March 25 against the Celtics, then he will be rested; ABC be damned.

The NBA has a soap opera quality to it and its image could use some improving.  For some reason, the rest thing comes up in the NBA, but not so much in the NFL, MLB, NHL and even Major League Soccer. And, before dismissing soccer, let it be known that no athlete gets less rest than the soccer player.  MLS begins in March and runs until December with only January and February as a break.  Furthermore, in addition to the 34 MLS games , players play in friendlies, cup competitions and other games.  A 44-week season for the soccer star, yet the NBA players struggle to play 82 games over 26 weeks.   The European leagues start in August and end in May, leaving only June and July free.  So, what gives with the NBA players?

There is no tangible solution. Imposing sanctions and rules set by the league will be met with resistance. In fact, the owners will likely defy Commissioner Silver because they don’t want to see their stars get hurt. The first step is to start the season on October 5 and end it April 25.   More days means more days off, more rest, less back-to-backs and less four games in five days. It seems simple, but as we know, nothing is as easy as it seems.