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Dear Terry Pegula...

Ideas for the incoming owner of the Buffalo Sabres

Any time now should come the big announcement—that investor Terry Pegula has agreed to purchase and take the reins of the Buffalo Sabres. For supporters of the team who have watched current owner Tom Golisano save the franchise, then slowly lose interest as his focus went on to political adventurism in local elections, and then move to the State of Florida, the news of a potential new owner is music to the ears.

So what will happen to the Sabres once the new boss is in the chair? Of course, the first bit of speculation will be the general manager and the head coach. Keep Darcy? Fire Lindy? Blow up the roster? Those certainly will be important decisions that will affect the team for years to come, as Pegula’s vision for “multiple Stanley Cups” turns into a plan of action.

But the template for a successful and world-class sports franchise goes much farther than that, and here is our list of suggestions for what owner Terry Pegula should look at once he takes over:

Take the lead development role at Canal Side

The Adelphia people understood that the success of HSBC Arena as a destination entertainment venue needed a vibrant neighborhood to be a true success. Not only were they planning a tower headquarters, but a world-class sports bar, a TV studio, uses for the DL&W Terminal, and a practice facility, among other things. With Bass Pro gone, the ECHDC floundering, and the “faster, lighter, cheaper” crowd (translation: build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything crowd) winning the PR battle, now is the time for an infusion of bold thinking and private sector dollars into the mix. Perhaps next time an event with the stature of the World Juniors comes to town, visitors won’t be staring at the embarrassment of empty windswept fields and a muddy crater in the ground right outside the arena’s front door.

A downtown community rink

At Columbus’ Nationwide Arena, Indianapolis’ Conseco Fieldhouse, Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena, and Miami’s American Airlines Arena, practice facilities are built right into the venues. Imagine a 3,000-seat arena built right in proximity to HSBC Arena, capable of hosting smaller events, serving as a practice rink for the Sabres, and open to the community for local hockey programs. Back in the day, former Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek advanced the idea. The Adelphia ownership group was interested. Certainly worth a fresh look.

Scouting

The success of any hockey department means good scouts, visiting all corners of the globe to find those diamonds in the rough. Yet incredibly, the Sabres have gutted their scouting department in recent seasons, relying more and more on video reconnaissance to assess the talent out there. Having people in the field in places such as Stockholm, Prague, and closer to home in the junior rinks across Canada will pay huge dividends in the long term.

Spend to the cap

Why is it that every time a marquee free agent hits the market, Buffalo is never discussed as being in the mix? Fans are frustrated, the team is often perceived as being in a “deer in the headlights” mode, and amongst the players, the buzz most likely is that the team is too cheap to make the bold moves to get better.

Reconstitute a sports network

Buffalo is the only team not affiliated with a regional sports network, and that is a shame. In the old days, the Empire Sports Network, with its marquee Fan TV and Hockey Hotline programs, were must-view television for the local sports fan. Now the well produced Sabres hockey presentations are the orphan stepchild over at MSG, where game night telecasts hurry to get off the air following a game, perhaps to save the satellite rental time. Reconstituting a sports network, with viewership across Upstate New York, and also finding a way to beam telecasts on to TV sets right across the bridges into southern Ontario, will go a long way to igniting and retaining fan interest in your team.

The Buffalo “What”?! Bandits!

Coming your way as part of the package are the keys to a team in the National Lacrosse League. The Bandits, in fact, are one of the marquee franchises in a league that has gone through much change in the 20 years that the team has been around. Sadly, the Sabres have paid little attention on and off the field, sort of just opening the doors, selling a batch of tickets, and allowing a screaming PA announcer to give an undignified face to the product. Buffalo could do so much to help this sport grow, but not with its current configuration and mission statement.

Pricing your tickets

Season ticket holders must love being able to buy tickets for less than half price and all those variable pricing plans. It has turned local folks into an army of ticket resellers on various internet sites, but the downside of all this is yawning empty rows of seats at Toronto and Montreal games, while a Tuesday night “value” game against Nashville boasts a full house. A top to bottom review of how the Sabres price their tickets is in order. Back in the 1970s, people camped out all night to spend their precious ducats to watch the Boston Bruins play at the Aud; in the 1990s, that Toronto game was the hottest ticket in town. These games deserve to become the major events once again.

One more banner to raise

Terry, you bragged about being a Sabres fan and attending games in your younger days. Did you also notice that there was another proud franchise that played here as well? They were called the Buffalo Braves. For eight wonderful seasons, we could call ourselves an NBA city. That franchise was brutally ripped from this community, but the memories still live in our hearts. It is time for us to hang a banner high in the rafters to commemorate this team, and two of the greatest players to ever wear the Buffalo uniform, #11 Bob McAdoo, above, and #9, the late Randy Smith. The Adelphia ownership was keen on the idea; the outgoing managing partner was solicited for the very same concept. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and his point person, Sue Gonzales, have both said they are very much interested in this commemoration. Can you be the guy that finally makes this happen?

Lastly, Terry, be a hands on owner: Walk the halls and concourses, greet the fans, hang out while they are waiting in line to buy a beer. Nothing engenders more support amongst the fans (and ticket buyers) than just being one of the guys—someone who cares about the fans. Oh, and drop by the pressbox and talk to the reporters who cover your team. Lower tier, seat 4—the Artvoice chair. We’d love to meet you. And to pass along somemore great ideas.

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