Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

May 8, 2013

ROOT: One ugly circle

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The dynamic between Western New York’s professional sports teams and its fans is frightening to watch. Most Buffalo sports fans feel comfortable expressing opinions without giving those opinions any thought at all. As a matter of fact, most Buffalo sports fans feel comfortable expressing nearly violent opinions on the sports teams regardless as to whether or not those opinions have any basis in fact at all.

Terry Pegula, the owner of the Buffalo Sabres, is a study in how sports in Buffalo affects people. I believe Pegula when he says that he is a lifelong fan of the Sabres. I believe him when he tells stories of finding shelter under a bridge somewhere just to listen to Sabres games on the radio. I also believed his emotion when he was faced with meeting the French Connection for the first time as the owner of the team.

I also believe that Terry Pegula got in way over his head and had no idea what he was doing when he promised “Hockey Heaven” and a Stanley Cup in three years. There are two things working against Buffalo at all times; the economy and the sports fans. If Pegula wants to attract the kind of talent the team needs to win a championship, he is going to need to convince the biggest names in the game that the fans in Buffalo are worth putting up with while also finding ways to navigate our troubled economy.

Most millionaire athletes and coaches should be able to handle a slightly crippled economy because they are rich, right? The athletes and coaches are rich, but the rest of the area is not. Athletes want endorsement deals and sources of extra revenue to come to an area. We cannot offer that. Plus, we always fawn over big name athletes like they are some kind of golden gods. I am still embarrassed at the way we rolled out the red carpet for a washed up Terrell Owens before he had actually accomplished anything here.

The fans in this area are brutal, but there is a good reason for it. Because this area does not offer the financial opportunities that one would find in a place like New York City or Boston, we work harder for our money. When we choose to spend our money on a professional sports team, we expect to see a winning team. To us sports fans, it should be that simple.

But it is not that simple. To be competitive in professional sports these days, you need to have money. You can be as creative as you want, but you still need a lot of money to make a winning team. The television contracts with the NFL pay most of the salaries for the teams, but that does not cover the coaches. The reason that the Bills do not bring in that coach with Super Bowl winning experience is that the team simply cannot afford it. That is not a cop out; that is the truth.

The reason that Terry Pegula keeps Darcy Regier is because Regier has learned how to keep the seats filled while still showing a profit. The NHL, just like any other sports league, is a business. Terry Pegula can say that he doesn’t care if he loses money with the Sabres, but he has found out the hard way that it matters a lot.

When you see your $100+ million investment lose value at a rapid rate, you will do what you need to do to reverse that and get some stability back into the company. That is exactly what Pegula is doing right now. He is stabilizing his investment and Darcy has a long history of being successful with that.

The Sabres announced that interim head coach Ron Rolston will now be the team’s full-time head coach. Is it the absolute best move the team could have made? No, it isn’t. If Pegula was still operating under what he said when he bought the team two years ago, he would have brought in someone with Stanley Cup experience. But those guys are expensive, and Terry Pegula can no longer afford to go backwards on his investment.

So the fans get mad because they are putting their hard-earned money into a losing team and the teams are stuck making losing decisions because there isn’t enough money to make good decisions. Yes, Mario Williams has a $100 million contract. But how much do you think the Bills are paying Doug Marrone? It isn’t anywhere near $100 million because Marrone’s paychecks come right out of the Bills’ profits.

When you are a professional sports team in Western New York, there just aren’t enough profits to make the kinds of decisions that make the fans happy. And that is what keeps the fan base in Buffalo forever jaded. It is just one ugly circle.

George N Root III is a Lockport resident and devoted fan of the local professional sports teams, especially the Sabres. His column appears every Wednesday and is not affected by the local economy. He can be reached at georgeroot@verizon.net, but he really does not have $20 to lend out until next week.