Archive for April, 2017

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.