Buffalo's sports owners speak of the different nature of the business

Jul 31, 2015

The families who own Buffalo's professional sports teams, another local businessman who owns an out-of-town hockey club and a major league's commissioner were all at the same table in Buffalo on Thursday. Among the topics they discussed: the intangibles of owning a sports franchise, and whether success can be measured in the same way as it is measured in other industries.

Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, Buffalo Bisons owners Bob and Mindy Rich, Delaware North chairman and Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs and National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman all participated in a roundtable hosted by Business First at Buffalo Riverworks.

Most agreed that one cannot measure success in the same way as in other businesses. Terry Pegula told the audience that the Sabres, who finished at the bottom of the NHL's standings this past season, actually put in two of their most successful seasons under his ownership over the past two years. The reason? They're rebuilding, and all that losing - which helped secure the draft pick which was used to select highly-touted Jack Eichel in late June - is part of the program.

From left to right: Buffalo Bisons owners Bob and Mindy Rich, Sabres and Bills owners Kim and Terry Pegula, Delaware North Companies chairman and Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs and National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman participate in a panel on sports ownership Thursday at Buffalo Riverworks. At the podium is moderator Jeff Wright of Business First, the hosts of the event.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

"We love the way the whole community just seemed to get the plan and follow along with us," said Mr. Pegula. "(Success) didn't show up in the wins and losses but it's going to show up in the future."

While most at the table say the rewards of sports ownership are measured by emotion, Bob Rich, Jr. disagreed with the notion that success in sports is measured much differently.

"There are a table full of people here who are held to the same accountability as our business around the world at Rich Products," he said. "They know 'customer first' and creation of value for the customer, and safety, and community are number one. They're held accountable just like any other division. 

"I think if you don't do that, you run the risk of running a hobby business, and I really hate hobby businesses."

The owners of the local teams also discussed how they got involved with their respective teams. The Riches, for example, bought the Bisons in the early 1980s when then-mayor Jimmy Griffin expressed fear that pro baseball would soon be leaving Buffalo. After buying the Bisons, the Rich family was invited by Major League Baseball's then-commissioner, Peter Uberroth, to submit a bid for a big league franchise. The campaign was passionate and widespread through the local community but ultimately unsuccessful, as MLB awarded franchises to Denver and Miami. 

The Riches, however, continue to own the Bisons. The team plays at the Class AAA level, the highest tier in the minor leagues, in the International League as an affiliate of the American League's Toronto Blue Jays.

The Pegulas, who bought the Sabres in 2011, lived in Western New York as football's Bills were enjoying their run of American Football Conference championships and appearances in the Super Bowl. They moved away for a few years but, upon returning to town and buying the Sabres, learned how worried the community was about losing its pro football team.

"We really didn't realize fully, until we came back, the fear and the uncertainty the community had about their teams here, staying here and being viable in Buffalo," said Kim Pegula.

The Pegulas bought the Bills in 2014, months after the passing of the football team's founder and only other owner, Ralph Wilson.

NHL Commissioner Bettman, who has often times been unpopular with the hockey fan base, received praise from Bob Rich, Jr., who reminded the crowd that when the Sabres went bankrupt in 2003, Bettman and the NHL took possession of the franchise but worked to keep the team from relocating. The team was eventually bought by Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano who, in 2011, sold the club to the Pegulas.

"Without Gary Bettman, there would be no hockey team here," said Rich. "I just want to remember that."