Buffalo Sabres president Ted Black was caught in the crossfire at the team’s bizarre postseason news conference Monday in First Niagara Center.
While much of the talk Monday and through the final days of a disappointing season centered around the status of General Manager Darcy Regier, the Sabres have also been taken to task by fans for a 4 percent increase in season tickets – which was announced in a letter most ticket holders received on Friday, mere hours before the team’s Fan Appreciation Night finale against the New York Islanders.
Among several contentious exchanges with reporters, Black defended the team’s decision as a necessity caused by the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement and said the team needed to continue to qualify for the NHL’s revenue sharing program.
For the first time, Black also pointedly detailed the team’s management structure by insisting he is equal to Regier and not his boss. That’s unusual in pro sports for a team president.
After several questions and answers, Black did apologize to fans for the timing of the ticket hike.
“If the timing was insulting? Absolutely,” Black said, when asked if an apology was warranted. “Fan Appreciation Night was a wonderful night, wonderful game. We enjoy what the fans provide to us and vice versa. The suggestion we timed it that way is completely untrue.
“The fact of the matter is as soon as we made the decision we sent it out. It could have arrived on somebody’s birthday and they could have said how callous it was. It would be disingenuous to wait to Memorial Day weekend to send it or any time else. As soon as we made the decision, we sent it out.”
Black said the revenue sharing money is a necessity for the Sabres even though the salary cap is going down roughly $6 million next season and the owners’ share of hockey-related revenues has increased from 43 percent to 50 percent under terms of the new CBA. The New York Post took the Sabres to task Sunday, giving the team a “Chutzpah Award” for their awkward reasoning for the increase.
“The scale of audacity just doesn’t register any higher than it does in Buffalo,” wrote veteran hockey writer Larry Brooks, “where after just a couple of seasons in which, by the way, the Sabres have failed to qualify for the playoffs, Terry Pegula has gone from the Peoples’ Owner to, well, the Owner of the People.”
Black said the team is following a league mandate.
“It is important. We’re the smallest U.S.-based market in the NHL. Revenue sharing exists for a market just like Buffalo. … The obligation to grow as a league as a whole still exists. It’s not a written obligation but that’s what we’re trying to do – grow league revenues,” he said.
Still, revenue-sharing would seem to not be needed for owner Terry Pegula. He was listed as No. 132 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans last fall with a net worth of $3 billion. He was four spots behind a notable like Donald Trump.
And he famously said at his introductory news conference in February 2011 that “If I want to make some money, I’ll go drill a gas well.”
“If you look out front with all the rigs and everything else, it probably looks like we’re drilling wells out front,” joked Black, referring to the construction cranes rising on the HarborCenter site. “… I can assure you what Terry said is completely true. He’s not operating this team to make money.”
Black said the gas well quote isn’t a burr in the franchise’s side.
“I think it was pretty funny,” he said. “It was addressed at this time last year. We did the exact same thing. The ability to have a snarky comment to something like that is going to live forever. I thought it was a great line Terry had and it’s out there.”
Pegula was not at the news conference and has spoken to the media on hockey matters just once in the last two seasons, when he announced Regier’s contract extension in January.
Black insisted Pegula is available for interviews until it was pointed out the owner refused to speak on hockey matters at the groundbreaking for HarborCenter last month.
“Terry is not going to speak on the day-to-day operations of the franchise,” Black said. “He’s not going to speak on the business operations. He hired me to do that.”
Black said costs of HarborCenter would not bleed into the hockey operations and said the organization hasn’t been distracted by the buildup to start construction of the $172 million project.
“We should never let that happen,” he said. “The reality is a lot of the work with the architects and designers gave us a lot of work to do during the lockout.”