Free Sports

The great irony of today’s pro sports is that even though an expanding twitterverse has made it easier than ever to reach out to and “touch” our favorite players (virtually speaking, at least), rising ticket costs have priced most fans out of the experience of actually seeing these same players in person. And so, most pro teams (and even some amateur and college squads) are always thinking of ways to make the everyday fan feel a connection to the players. What’s a surefire way to strengthen a fan’s allegiance? Organize a public event, make sure players are there, promote a family-friendly atmosphere, and, most importantly, don’t charge for admission.

Even before the advent of Pegulapalooza, the Sabres, of all the local teams, did the best job of organizing these freebies. The Sabres kick off the summer—honestly, is there really an offseason in hockey anymore?—with an annual Draft Party, where fans head to the arena, park for free, and then watch the Sabres draft the stars of tomorrow on the HD videoboard with other hockey-crazed families. Fan “scouting” continues through the summer, reaching its pinnacle at the Sabres annual Development Camp, taking place at Dwyer Arena on Niagara University’s campus during the week following July 4th. At Dev Camp, fans watch the team’s prospects and recently drafted teenagers practice and scrimmage. Most of these players never make it to the big club, but the neat thing about Dev Camp is that a few eventually do. And their journey starts here.

A little known secret is that the Sabres open HSBC Arena for preseason gameday skates, providing dads a chance to teach their youngsters about back checking and such without having to deal with the multiple distractions of a regular season game. We suggest hunkering down near the glass at least once. Many players stick around for autographs, too.

Honestly, the Bills could do a better job of making the non-ticket-buying fan feel invested in the team, but they do offer a freebie or two in hopes of bolstering the fan base of tomorrow. The Bills schedule free day and nighttime practices during training camp at St. John Fisher College in Rochester. During the nighttime workouts, partnering sponsors give away prizes, and fans can test their football skills in “the Bills Experience.”

If you’re the kind of person who smells baseball in the air when pitchers and catchers report, then maybe you should check out the Bisons’ annual Family Day Open House, which takes place in March at Coca-Cola Field. The day’s events include free food, and, of course, plenty of Coke; open batting cages and a chance to throw in front of a radar gun; raffles and Wii games; and tours of the clubhouse, press box, and party suites.

And if, after all of these events, your son or daughter still has energy to burn, consider the Sports Academy, a free sports participation program running year-round at UB South. Every Saturday at Clark Hall from 9 to 11 a.m., children ages eight to fourteen participate in flag and tackle football, basketball, sports training and physical fitness, track, swimming, baseball, and virtually any other pick-up activity you can think of. Sign up any Saturday at Clark Hall, or contact the Academy at 247-7486 or for program details.

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