By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The imaginary call came in from the blue.
“Hi, Budd, it’s Kim Pegula. You may have noticed that we’ve been having some troubles lately with the Sabres in a number of ways. Honestly, we think we need some help. We’re so sick of losing around here, and we don’t know why. We’ve certainly spent lots of money in the past several years. You know something about talking to a bunch of people and reporting objectively on what a sports team’s situation is. We’d like to hire you as something of a consultant. We need a fresh pair of eyes to see what the problem is and how to fix it. Can you help?”
Hang around a sports team for a while, and you hear stuff. In the case of the Sabres, the stories abound about problem areas. The front office doesn’t like certain players. The hockey department wonders about some of the actions of executives. Some of the team’s public actions come across as well-intentioned but delivered in a clumsy manner. And that doesn’t include some forced departures of employees either for disturbing reasons or at the absolute worst time to take such a move (in the middle of a pandemic).
Add all of that to the large, fascinating story that Tim Graham wrote for The Athletic in which he tracked down a few dozen employees of the company (Bills, Sabres, etc.) to get their thoughts. It was a fine job, and laid out some of the problems within the organization. They are many. It’s not easy to miss the playoffs nine straight times. It’s like calling heads nine straight times, and having it come up tails – a 1-in-1,024 chance, if all things were equal … but they aren’t.
I found myself going back to Kim Pegula’s answer to the first question about dismissals. It read:
“When Terry and I came back to Buffalo in 2011, there was no handbook for being a sports owner (there still isn’t, but we have learned an awful lot). Many times, with ownership changes come sweeping changes. We chose not to do that. We felt we owed the current staff an opportunity to continue working for the organization. We kept people in leadership roles because we trusted them to have our interests and the interest of the teams as their number one priority. We were wrong.”
That first sentence is the key one to me. There may not be an owner’s manual that comes with the keys to the KeyBank Center, but there are plenty of people who have seen the sports business from close range out there.
Admittedly, this might not be the best possible time to think of good-sized changes. You may have heard that most businesses at the absolute least face uncertain futures at this unique moment in time, and that’s certainly true of the sports industry. Throw in the fact that oil and gas firms have even bigger problems than most, and it’s a double whammy for the Pegulas. Who knows what their cash-flow situation is right now?
Still, who can resist the chance to kick the tires when offered a dream-like chance to do so? I’m in.
My first task, then, as the new Special Consultant to the Sabres, is to find a team president. I want someone who is smart, experienced, and open to the media (and thus to the public at large). Actually, Ralph Krueger probably would have been a pretty good candidate, but he may be more valuable as a coach at the moment. Yes, that would mean that Kim Pegula would have to kick herself upstairs in a sense. Owners should own, and workers should work. I think the Sabres are a big enough organization that the team needs someone in charge who can put his or her full attention on the job at hand. When you’ve been losing millions of dollars per year, well, nothing should be sacred.
Finding that person probably will take a little time, especially in the current, um, “pause” caused by Covid-19. I’ll let Terry and Kim Pegula conduct a search, although I’m available for free advice. Still, that brings me to part two of the equation.
It sure sounds like the Pegulas still don’t know what they don’t know about the sports business. It’s a unique enterprise, in which 31 teams join forces to work together off the ice and beat each other’s brains in on the ice (metaphorically speaking).
I’d ask for a small unused office in that area – or, under the current circumstances, do a video conference or pick up the phone – and start talking to employees one at a time. I’d tell them that everything they said was off the record and wouldn’t be held against them, but I wanted to know what the entire organization could do to improve. It might take 30-60 minutes each, which would mean it would take some time to get to almost everyone. But I’d want as many different voices as possible. People like to be asked, you know.
We might hear about some of the items that Graham discovered in his story, such as hirings on the “friends and family” plan and an organization that’s gotten away from the task of putting on sporting events and expanded too quickly. Still, I’d bet many other suggestions would come up – small ones that might add up to good-sized improvements.
I’m guessing that some patterns would emerge in the conversations. When I worked for the Sabres, I learned along the way that the team had what I called “a commitment to mediocrity.” Yes, lip service was paid about winning the Stanley Cup. But in terms of action, the organization seemed relatively content to be competitive and sell most of the available tickets. It wasn’t willing to take other steps forward toward reaching that championship goal. The results showed on the ice from 1986 to 1992. I remember one outsider coming in during that time and after a while referring to the Sabres as “a cheap-ass organization.” A new era was just arriving in sports administration at that time, as the rules were changing quickly, and the Sabres weren’t prepared for it.
Teams usually lose for a reason. It’s a matter of finding it, and fixing it. Let’s get to work.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)