Saturday, February 05, 2011

The gorilla in the room

The about-to-be-completed sale of the Buffalo Sabres brings to mind one of the true quirks of the sports business.

Sports teams are in a very odd business situation. They are something of a cultural draw, considered good for the quality of life in a particular community. In the case of Buffalo, the Sabres offer a chance to Buffalo to compete on relatively equal footing with cities such as New York, Toronto and Boston on the sports playing field. As a result, these businesses receive government funding, mostly in the form of subsidies for stadiums and surrounding infrastructure. Theaters and art galleries also receive those subsidies in certain circumstances for the same reason.

Yet, the Sabres are a business. As we saw a few years ago, if they are badly run they can come close to folding or moving. But, they can make money too -- maybe not much from year to year, but sometimes on the back end of an ownership era. This isn't a non-profit organization, like the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. When Sabres owner Tom Golisano agreed to sell the team, his profit was relatively close to nine figures. (In fairness, when the Knox family cashed out of the hockey business, its return was very, very small -- so there are no guarantees.)

And it's a very odd business in terms of its relationship with the public. All fans make an emotional connection to the team, which usually means they have strong opinions on how the franchise should be run. Rule number one is: win at any cost. The ideal owner plows millions into the franchise in pursuit of a championship, keeping ticket prices artificially low in the process. After all, the reasoning goes, the owner is a rich guy and can afford it. Is there any other business that judges success by something other than profit and loss in that manner?

That brings us to the gorilla mentioned in the title. Any discussion between a team and its town starts with one basic, sometimes forgotten fact. The owner of a pro sports franchise puts up large amounts of money to acquire the team. It could easily go into more profitable places. The fans, at least in the case of the smart ones, remember that. They know Ralph Wilson could sell the Bills to Los Angeles interests for one billion dollars right now, which would earn him $250 million more than he could receive for a team in Buffalo. But he doesn't. They heard that Golisano could have sold the Sabres for $70 million more than he received for them if he was willing to let the team move somewhere -- we assume Hamilton. Instead he found an owner that would keep the team here.

We accept all that, appreciate that, and feel a sense of debt.

The outgoing management team of the Sabres held a news conference on Thursday to discuss their status. The session was a lot of different things, but the one word that would never be associated with it would be "gracious."

Golisano and Larry Quinn spent many of those 60 minutes reviewing their accomplishments during their time running the team. They made the Sabres financially viable again, which without doubt is impressive and important. And they are about to be rewarded for it from new owner Terry Pegula. OK, that's business.

Golisano and Quinn also seemed to remember every slight thrown at them during the course of their tenure, as they brought up some of them during the course of the news conference. As exits go, it wasn't going to make anyone nostalgic for their presence.

Remember when their tenure started? Golisano was considered a rich gadfly who had spent millions in a relatively hopeless quest to become the Governor of New York. I believe he once said he had entered the hockey business in honor of a late friend, and ended up enjoying the sport immensely. Golisano's public appearances were few and far between, which seems like a mistake in hiindsight. But no one believes that it was bad for Golisano to wind up with the team instead of Mark Hamister, the other bidder for the franchise when the Rigas empire crumbled who was clearly in over his head. Golisano's time with the Sabres did wonders for his public image, too, which could have some value as he apparently gets ready to return to the political arena.

Quinn, meanwhile, made an amazing comeback. He left the Sabres with a legacy of the John Muckler/Ted Nolan era, spoiling his reputation in the process. Everyone was surprised when he came back into the picture, but -- give him credit -- he learned some things from the first time around. Still, Quinn was combative to the end, never learning the old lesson that while "it's nice to be smart, in the long run it's smarter to be nice."

Golisano and Quinn move into hockey's sunset now, exiting the sport's pages for good. Their contribution to Western New York's sports history won't be forgotten. But they sure made it difficult for fans to feel warm and fuzzy about them, particularly when they said goodbye.

1 comment:

Julie P said...

Budd, we too were bit surprised at all the whining at the time of the sale. I guess when you are rich you can say whatever you want. Seems to me they should have been grateful to the cans for sticking by the team and helping the increase the size of their wallets. What do I know of sports-machines?