- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

Life has not been good lately for the Buffalo Sabres.
The team has been under the operation of the NHL for nearly six months since the indictment of its owner, cable TV mogul John Rigas, and his family under myriad fraud and embezzlement charges committed through Adelphia Communications, chaired by Rigas.
Entering the weekend, the Sabres had the fewest points in the NHL and fourth-lowest average home attendance. Overall club revenues represented only a fraction of those garnered by well-heeled teams in Detroit, Philadelphia, Colorado and elsewhere.
But some hope exists in western New York, and the rest of the sports industry is watching closely. After a long bidding process, Mark Hamister, a health care and commercial real estate executive, recently emerged as the new Sabres owner. The Buffalo-area native bought the club, the National Lacrosse League's Buffalo Bandits and operating rights to HSBC Arena for an estimated $65million. He and partner Todd Berman will assume full control of the club after formal approval by the NHL Board of Governors and a bankruptcy court judge sometime early next year.
The fate of the Sabres will prove to be something of a lab experiment for all struggling, small-market teams, regardless of the sport. That's because the Sabres are facing just about every possible hurdle in their quest to regain solid footing competitively and financially.
The Buffalo market shows no signs of any significant, near-term economic expansion. The club's TV rights holder, Adelphia subsidiary Empire Sports Network, faces a somewhat uncertain future itself as Adelphia continues its long and winding road through bankruptcy.
Season-ticket sales stand at less than 8,000, and a recent sales effort led by the city's business community was an abject failure. Fan disgust and disinterest in the Sabres stand at arguably the worst levels in franchise history. Bona fide, mainstream stars are nowhere to be found on the roster.
And if the NHL loses the entire 2004-05 season due to labor rancor an increasing possibility given the owners' firm insistence on a salary cap and the players' heated opposition small-market clubs like Buffalo will feel the financial pain first and hardest.
If Buffalo can somehow clear all of that, the blueprint is certain to be copied nationwide.
"Right now, we're still the students," Hamister said. "There's a lot to learn from places like Minnesota, with the Wild, that have thriving [hockey] teams in somewhat smaller markets. But ultimately, we believe very strongly that if we study and act upon all our opportunities, and take a much more regional approach to marketing the team, we can stabilize this franchise and get it turned around."
The Sabres' story also illuminates just how quickly things can change in the sports industry. Less than four years ago, newly minted Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis went to Buffalo to see the Sabres in the Stanley Cup finals against Dallas. HSBC Arena was perhaps louder than a jet engine, every seat was filled and a prosperous future appeared to await the young, scrappy Sabres. The then-lifeless Caps, meanwhile, had fewer than 3,000 season tickets sold and failed to make the playoffs in 1999.
Now the Caps have more than 12,000 season tickets sold, one of the game's brightest stars in Jaromir Jagr, a top-10 payroll, and a fast-growing revenue base while the Sabres have fallen hard.
"This city has a passion for hockey," Hamister said. "It hasn't been shown as outwardly in recent times, but I have seen it just since our bid was selected to go before the Board of Governors [on Nov. 20]. The Sabres are important to the collective psyche and quality of life in Buffalo. The fans needed assurances that the club was going to stay in Buffalo, play in Buffalo and succeed in Buffalo. They now have that."
Hamister's business plan to revive the Sabres has three primary components: market the club to cities beyond greater Buffalo such as Rochester, N.Y., Syracuse, N.Y., and Erie, Pa.; fill HSBC Arena with as many events as possible; and achieve business synergies among the Sabres, Bandits and Arena Football League's Buffalo Destroyers, also owned by Hamister, such as selling joint sponsorships.
That last part should be fairly simple, and landing extra concerts and family events in the arena also can be achieved. Getting fans as far as 150 miles away to come to weeknight Sabres games, however, is a very tough sell. And Hamister is well aware that the honeymoon period of simply being someone willing to take on the Sabres challenge will soon end.
"We're probably talking about a three-to-six year process to really get things stabilized," Hamister said. "During that time, it's important for fans to see momentum, to see our commitment. There's a lot to do. But if we continue our work and set a proper tone for this organization, I believe the fans will respond."

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