Christmas in Pegulaville: My wish list

It’s a day of hope in Buffalo.

The Sabres may not be doing much to give fans hope on the ice, but off the ice, today officially begins a new era in Buffalo Sabres hockey. This morning’s press conference officially introduces Terry Pegula as the new owner of the franchise.

While there is always hope with change, this is different. This isn’t a businessman looking for a new toy. This isn’t a public service. This guy wants to own the team for the same reason any Sabres fan would. He wants to be a part of it. He wants to win. He’s one of us.

It’s not clear what exactly will happen this week, or this month, or this season. But the sense of stagnation that has wafted from the foot of Washington Street seems like it’s ready to fade away.

I’m not gonna sit here and call for Darcy Regier’s head, or Lindy Ruff. There’s reason to think that they’re capable of doing better. There’s a good chance they will. But there are definitely things at HSBC Arena that can use changes, ones that don’t involve the roster on any given night.

As a fan, as a season ticket holder, and as an industry professional, these things could change for the better:

Game Presentation

Let’s be frank here. The Sabres have one of the worst game presentation departments in the NHL. I’m not saying that because I don’t like it and don’t know what good presentation is (I’ve attended games at 10 NHL arenas, with more to come). I say that because it sucks. (I’ve said it before, too) You hear people complain about how dead the crowd is, and that’s not by mistake.

The Buffalo Sabres as an organization have done a horrible job cultivating fan enthusiasm at games over the past half-decade. The arena will be mostly silent until the first sounds of the “Cha-Cha Slide” show up for the first of 12 appearances on the night. Arena music is such an underrated aspect of the sports environment. The music sets the tone. When the tone is weak, the energy is weak. Are people going to be anxious for play after hearing Ke$ha blasting while the mascot throws out blank t-shirts with a sponsor logo on them? Some Saturday night, watch a CBC feed of a game in Toronto and listen to the music they play at the Air Canada Centre during breaks. It’s what hockey fans listen to.

The team has done a horrible job creating die-hard fans who actually follow the team. Sure they sell a lot of jerseys, but how many people at a home game are the type of people who will rearrange their schedule to be home in front of the television the next night?

The act of being at a game has become a bigger deal than actually seeing a game. How does this happen? It starts with showing crowd shots on the scoreboard more than they show the players. What can you do to get on the big screen? Kids will talk about that more than they’ll remember that they saw Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin right in front of them, and to me, that’s disgusting. But that’s what the presentation leads them to believe, that being at the game is more important than the game. There’s no reference whatsoever to the NHL standings during warmups or before the game. You can’t find them posted anywhere in the hallway. When a player scores, they flash a giant picture of the player, but unless you have binoculars you can’t read any of the bio that’s shown on the screen. They don’t show assists. Is there a reason this stuff is so foreign inside our arena?

Each game has been pushed as more of an event than a part of a bigger event, a season. When people walk out thinking what they just saw is all they’ll see, they won’t care about what it means to the whole. Horrible business for an NHL franchise.

Marketing

When was the last time you saw the Sabres give away bumper stickers at their promo table?  When was the last time they sent out season-in-review DVDs? When did you see a giant picture of a Sabres player (not peddling a charity or other good cause) on the side of the 33 heading downtown? When did you see a commercial for the next home game during the local news?

I’m a firm believer in that as a sports franchise, getting yourself more visible is huge. If people see your logo, it gives them a reason to think about your product. People are going to be exposed. If you demand money for everything you offer, your saturation is going to be extremely low. Do whatever you can to be a part of their lives.

The players have become more and more distant from fans and less and less accessible. The team doesn’t emphasize the players, they don’t promote them, they’re too busy pushing guys who played on the team 30 years ago (I’m gonna have more on this in a bit).

It’s an investment to do that, but unless you’re worried about the bottom of the ledger more than the level of excitement, it’s the best way to keep both numbers up. Get people excited players and the team. You don’t need to put out new jerseys every year to sell them. Have a team of players fans want to go out of their way to support. That will do more for the benefit of the organization than any new uniform ever could.

Environment

For the 40th anniversary, the organization took steps to recognize the club’s history, building a display in “Headlines” featuring some Sabres relics. It’s an improvement, but it can be better. Make it better. The Panthers’ “Den of Honor” in Florida blows it away, and that team doesn’t have half the history the Sabres do. You can do better. Don’t ever be afraid to admit that.

As mentioned before, nowhere are the NHL standings posted. Nowhere you can go to watch other games. Just do a better job with the big picture, get everyone inside to recognize what the concept is of what they’re about to see. It’s one of many games. Make the others just as important.

Attitude

Ever since the last ownership group took over, one thing has been absolutely disgusting is the overall attitude from the Sabres organization. Of course, it was a reflection of the ownership. Larry Quinn, while often a good businessman, had ego problems. Tom Golisano took every chance he could to be petty, especially in his final press conference. I mean, I don’t blame them for the hostility towards The Buffalo News staffers, because I think they earn that. There seems to be this mentality of “our way is always the best way” and questioning that is a sin.

The team worries about the wrong things. Instead of solving the problem, the mantra is to eliminate the idea that there’s a problem. I know that firsthand. I know there’s some good people that work there. But they’ve had this philosophy pushed upon them that puts ego before desire.

Are they the best at what they do? I’d debate that.

Do they try to be the best at what they do? I doubt that.

Do they think they’re the best at what they do? I think that more than the latter two.

Those may be blanket statements over the entire organization, and I know there’s exceptions to the rule, being inside that building as much as I have.

Listen Sabres, you guys need to accept that you can’t control the information that’s out there. It’s 2011. You will not break every story. Sabres.com is nothing but propaganda instead of a reliable source of news. The tone of the work screams of spin control. Sabres fans are, for the most part, not completely stupid. Some of us are capable of forming our own opinions. You don’t need to push us in one direction or another.

When you’re telling us how much history and tradition the team has, don’t forget to include the time before you, like when the people who fired your managing partner were under control… just to use an example. The team wore black, red and silver for a decade. Those are Sabres colors… don’t forget that.

The point of this is not a demand to clean house, or rip everyone in the organization. Is it too much to ask to want my team to have the desire to be better at everything they do? I don’t get the sense that they’ve felt that way in the past. If this team is ever going to be a winner, it has to be from top-to-bottom in the organization. The people you employ should have the desire to be better and make the place they work better. They should want all the same things we do, for our team to be the best at everything. Don’t look at these grievances as being bitter, or angry. Look at it and say you can do these things better.

Mr. Pegula, we’ve been told you’re in it for the reasons we want you to be. There shouldn’t be any hostility amongst us. Don’t give anyone reason to doubt. Give us reason to trust. We want to. We’re dying to. I want to.

Believe me when I say that I want it that way.

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Posted on February 22, 2011, in Sabres/NHL and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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