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What we don’t talk about when we talk about WNY sports

UB guard Byron Mulkey is a Wheatfield native.

Paul Hokanson/UB Athletics

“This season is epic,” a friend opined several games into the Bills’ wildly entertaining 2010 campaign. “We’ll talk about it for years.” But as the NFL draft and the start of free agency approach, Bills talk seems a tad … 2010. This offseason lacks the drama of the who-will-coach-us hysterics of last year. And things remain rather iffy in Sabre-land, a place where, right now, the most interesting guy in the picture is not a player, but Terry Pegula. Sigh.

So why don’t we care about college sports? What is it that keeps us away from a steady stream of exciting, affordable games being played against some of the finest teams in the nation? It’s not that local fans don’t like them; they don’t care. Look no further than the less-than-capacity crowds for Team USA’s games at the World Junior Hockey Championship for a sign that if it ain’t the Bills or Sabres, our enthusiasm is curbed, big-time. Sadly, most Bills fans are about as interested in UB football as Chris Collins is in Curtain Up! and Shakespeare in Delaware Park.

It’s sad that many sports lovers seem to care more about other towns’ collegiate attractions than our own. Syracuse is often considered “Buffalo’s team,” but not to me. Beautiful campus, but I’m more emotionally tethered to Teen Mom than the strategies of Jim Boeheim. And Notre Dame gear? Unless you’re a graduate, tying yourself to this increasingly irrelevant football embarrassment is foolish at best, ignorant at worst; in addition to its on-the-field struggles, the program’s 2010 campaign saw the tragic death of the team’s videographer under questionable circumstances and a rape allegation that led to suicide. (Charges were not filed.) Irish football these days is about as classy as Brett Favre’s cell phone pics, and its national TV contract seems more and more ill-advised. Of course, it’s NBC, and they thought The Jay Leno Show at 10 was a fine idea. (It is worth noting that ND basketball has completely turned things around in the 2000s. Go figure.)

Okay, so I can be spotted in Cornhusker gear, but I married into Nebraska relatives, and I relished the experience of attending a football game in Lincoln, even if Larry the Cable Guy owns a luxury box. A visit to a Cornell hockey game can also be a thrill; perhaps only in Ithaca could a fan-chant aimed at the opposing team be “Safetyyyy schoooool.” Take that, Rensselaer!

But back home, that level of fandom is simply lacking when it comes to college football, basketball, and hockey. The once-hallowed St. Bonaventure is still, well, meh. Canisius basketball has been a mixed bag for years, and there’s an ebb and flow with UB. While the Turner Gill years showed a football team turning a corner, Jeff Quinn’s inaugural season was a disaster on every level. Reggie Witherspoon’s basketball squad seems to be gelling in 2011, but MAC success is hard to predict.

The biggest miss, really, is the area’s lack of feverish support for the Niagara Purple Eagles. In the past decade, Niagara basketball and men’s and women’s ice hockey have had real, measurable accomplishments. And yet, as WGR-550’s Brian Koziol astutely pointed out in a blog post in December on the radio station’s website, the announced attendance at a recent Bulls-Purple Eagles game at Alumni Arena was just 1,798—less than a year after the genuine excitement and huge crowds for March Madness at the HSBC Arena.

Perhaps it all comes down to location, location, location. As my Spree colleague John Hakes puts it, “Recruiting the best talents is the key to winning consistently at the NCAA level. I can’t help but think it’s difficult to sell kids on WNY. Their perception, right or wrong, of Buffalo is that it’s a snowbound Siberia with nothing to do, no cool clubs, and the relative lack of being treated like royalty on campus.” The “cool” factor is hard to overcome, and as Hakes concludes, the prestige factor of playing for the Orangemen, the Buckeyes, or their ilk is not just more attractive, but a more promising doorway to a future in pro sports. If rising-star players are not heading here—if the teams aren’t enjoying bigtime accomplishments—then it’s not going to be easy to lure the masses to watch.

Or, maybe we need more local success stories like Niagara Falls-product-turned-UB-star-and-Green-Bay-Packers-rookie-surprise James Starks, or a local basketballer like Wheatfield’s Byron Mulkey, who chose to play for the Bulls, and has had a senior year to remember.
The safest advice? Just win, kids, and perhaps we’ll finally pay some attention. Or not. Depends how the Bills and Sabres are doing.

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