Game On / Wealth can’t create saviors

Terry Pegula has often stressed that he’s just a normal sports fan who happens to be a billionaire

Bills–Jets photo by JP Thimot;


One of the more curious flaws of the American psyche is that we equate wealth with intelligence. It’s one reason we have a reality television star of indeterminate wealth currently serving as president of the United States. Many people assume those with money must have special skills; surely the rich can be trusted with the responsibility that money can buy.


It’s a curious, but ultimately toxic, idea. Concluding that wealth equals intelligence makes it easy to surmise that the poor are feeble-minded and thus deserve their lower status. But the truth is that ability and intelligence are not tied to finances even in the slightest. Money can often purchase merit, but not the ability to thrive when given opportunities for success.


The flaws of this thinking are easy to unravel when it comes to sports. Why are some franchises seemingly doomed to be bad for decades? Is it dumb luck, or institutional flaws? And when sports teams are owned by very wealthy people, shouldn’t the teams be successful to some degree? These owners must be smart enough to steward their teams to competence at worst and greatness at best. So why in the NFL are the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns always so bad? 


In the modern era, no major Buffalo sports franchise has won it all. No matter the owners or the players, the Bills and Buffalo Sabres have never become champions. Their current owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, are intelligent, thoughtful billionaires with business savvy. But sports are not just about making money or securing deals. There’s an intrinsic knowledge about building and operating a successful franchise that isn’t so easily acquired. 


Though the Pegulas have yet to prove themselves as winners, they’ve saved the Sabres and—especially—the Bills from sale and subsequent relocation to larger, more profitable markets in bigger cities. For much of their four years in Buffalo sports, they’ve been treated as heroes. But Terry Pegula has often stressed that he’s just a normal sports fan who happens to be a billionaire. 


“If you want to worship somebody, go to church on Sunday,” Pegula said at his introductory press conference as owner of the Bills in 2014. “It’s sometimes a little bit uncomfortable to me that people try to make me something different than what I am. I mean I’m just like everybody else in this room, so that’s been something that sometimes is hard to overcome. I’m a private person. If I did everything that people asked me to do, I’d never see my kids.”


But that everyman routine is difficult for a pro sports owner to justify. Franchises don’t need an armchair quarterback deciding what’s best for the team based on the most recent box score. They need real, smart leadership. They need knowledgeable guidance, and, if an owner does not want to or cannot make those decisions, they need to hire people they trust to make those calls. 


Sabres–Jets photo by Luc Thimot


In the four years of Pegula ownership of Buffalo’s teams, there’s little evidence that Pegula can and will make those decisions. The Sabres went from mediocre to painfully bad and held on to their front office for too long, seemingly out of nostalgia, before blowing it up. The team now appears to be on the upswing under general manager Tim Murray, but results are few and far between. Tanking brought young talent like Jack Eichel to the roster, but some fans are beginning to lose patience. 


And of course, the Bills team Pegula purchased from Ralph Wilson’s estate hasn’t made the playoffs in seventeen years and counting. This was an organization Pegula raved about when he was introduced as owner. He said he liked the job team president Russ Brandon was doing. Little has changed in the organization’s front office in the two years since, despite the team falling short of playoff promises and dashing renewed hopes of ending the drought.


Other than firing coach Rex Ryan, no one else has been shown the door in Orchard Park. Even with a new head coach in former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, fans and media alike are openly wondering if enough has changed in the franchise to ever expect different results. Pegula has asked not to be blamed for the failures of those before him, but many of those responsible for the drought are still being paid by him at One Bills Drive. 


The optics are bad. In late December, Bills interim head coach Anthony Lynn held a disastrous press conference where he admitted he wasn’t allowed to pick his starting quarterback. A week later, Bills general manager Doug Whaley admitted he didn’t hire or fire Rex Ryan and didn’t know what Russ Brandon’s role was in the organization anymore. The usually reticent Pegula had to give two public interviews to clarify that the Bills weren’t an organizational mess. 


“Everybody is on the same page,” he told the Associated Press. “We’re busy busting our asses.” But after nearly two decades without a meaningful game in January, fans are starting to lose faith, but not everyone has given up on the Pegulas. In fact, many are still coming to them for help. 


In January, the Western New York Flash of the National Women’s Soccer League were officially sold to an ownership group based in North Carolina. One of Western New York’s only champions would play in Cary, North Carolina, instead of nearby Rochester.


Before that happened, the Buffalo News reported that Flash ownership contacted Terry and Kim Pegula to see if they were interested in purchasing the team, but talks went nowhere. Similar cries are often heard around HarborCenter as the Buffalo Beauts see their player salaries cut as the National Women’s Hockey League struggles to stay afloat in its second season. Or when basketball fans lament the loss of the NBA decades ago. 


But Terry and Kim Pegula are not the saviors of sports in Buffalo. They don’t want to be, and they can’t put out every fire in Western New York. Right now, in fact, they’re still struggling to get control over the fires they paid for.     


Ryan Nagelhout is a writer and editor of children’s books and a freelance sportswriter.


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