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.