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By David Staba

Well, that's a relief.

Despite a public outcry and a bevy of unanswered questions about why, exactly, taxpayers should prop up Mark Hamister's bid to, um, "buy" the Buffalo Sabres, it looks like we're going to do exactly that.

Whether we want to or not.

After weeks of looking and sounding concerned, or even doubtful, politicians at the local and state level lined up late last week to support the nursing home magnate's attempt to rescue the local National Hockey League franchise from bankruptcy. All that remains is for Gov. George Pataki to sign off on the deal.

Isn't it sort of soothing to know that even decades of economic recession and a steady flow of moving vans heading south from Western New York can't change the way things get done around here?

Go ahead and complain all you want that the $33 million package of loans and direct aid flowing from Albany and Erie County Hall could have gone for any number of better uses. Ask how an ownership group that needs public assistance to even get in the game is going to survive what looks like a cataclysmic work stoppage in less than two years. Wonder why the same government officials who pound their chests over welfare and Medicaid costs gladly throw fistfuls of cash at people who already have plenty.

That last one's easy to answer.

"A matter of pull," read the dead-on headline in last Friday's Buffalo News.

The front-page story detailed Hamister's membership in and leadership of virtually every organization of creepy rich guys in Western New York, from the ominous-sounding 43x79 Group (so named for Buffalo's latitude and longitude) to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, an organization whose dismal track record in improving the local economy should be familiar to regular readers of the Niagara Falls Reporter, as well as anyone who has been paying attention for the last few decades.

Then there's Hamister's chumminess with Erie County Executive Joel Giambra. Hamister slid $13,000 to Giambra's campaign fund, chaired his transition team when he took office and sits on the exec's "kitchen cabinet," which is comprised almost exclusively of members from the two organizations mentioned above.

None of this would be nearly so problematic if any of the aforementioned people or groups had done one single thing that had any effect other than making them more wealthy. But, since that's the American way, we won't dwell on the propriety of the backroom dealing that's gone on in the last few months.

The wisdom of the deal? That's quite another matter.

If Pataki gives the OK (and if there's one thing he's really, really good at, it's promising millions that the state doesn't seem to have for petty matters like funding for schools), the Sabres will stay in Buffalo for the foreseeable future. If he doesn't, they're gone.

At least that's what the likes of Hamister, Partnership CEO Andrew Rudnick and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman have not-so-subtly implied.

Just one flaw with that reasoning -- who wants them? Bettman's master plan when he took over involved expanding into any city willing to build an arena (and come up with expansion fees ranging from $50 to $80 million). The result? A much larger league that plays to much smaller crowds in many of the places that were supposedly dying for a hockey team. The diluted talent pool isn't helping in more traditional markets, where even the venerable Chicago Blackhawks play to a nearly half-empty arena.

Then there's the labor strife steadily building toward September, 2004, when the current collective bargaining agreement between players and owners expires.

Talk of strikes and lockouts permeates every major-league sport to the point where you hardly pay it any mind. The NHL, National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have each endured a schedule interruption of some sort over the last 25 years.

But in most cases, the central beef was how to divvy up the spoils. This time, it's about who absorbs the losses. While the average salary has shot up almost 100 percent since the lockout that wiped out nearly half the schedule in 1994-95, hockey lacks the sort of lucrative national television deal enjoyed by The Big Three.

Both the owners and the NHL Players Association are already beating the war drums, even with a season-and-a-half to play before the current agreement expires.

How bad is it going to be? Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Pat Quinn referred to the 2004-05 season as "Armageddon," a comment that drew a fine from Bettman. The Boston Bruins aren't extending any contracts beyond next year, expecting a wholesale change in operating procedures.

Unless the NHL fundamentally changes the way it does business, no one is going to make money in Buffalo (or most other markets), no matter how much cash various governments kick in.

Which makes the Hamister deal even more puzzling. If he needs public concessions that add up to half the amount he and majority partner Todd Berman offered for the team just to acquire it, how is his group going to survive a seemingly inevitable work stoppage and the millions in lost revenue that will go with it? By begging for more tax money?

The NHL accepted Hamister's bid over the one proffered by perpetual gubernatorial aspirant Tom Golisano for a simple reason -- it was bigger. Forget how much more governmental help Hamister wants, or that Golisano possesses the wherewithal to absorb far greater losses than Hamister in the short term.

Bettman's bosses, the NHL's owners and Board of Governors, want to keep the average franchise value as high as possible, particularly since many of them coughed up those ridiculously high expansion fees.

And given Golisano's willingness and ability to irritate and embarrass both entrenched political parties, he simply isn't going to get the same sort of rhythm as Hamister, even if he wants it. Golisano's would-be ownership group includes Hormoz Mansouri, president of a Buffalo architectural firm. Mansouri told the Niagara Falls Reporter last week that Golisano's coalition would want the improvements promised to the Rigas family by the state and Erie County, such as $7 million for a new parking ramp.

Hamister also wants work done on HSBC Arena itself, such as improved acoustics, ostensibly to make the building more profitable for non-hockey events such as concerts. "We never brought that up, that's for sure," Mansouri said.

Should the state bailout fall through, and Pataki has proven better at promising money than delivering it, Mansouri reiterated Golisano's assertion to the Buffalo News that he's ready to jump back in if the process reopens.

"We have said publicly that should the Hamister group fail to close the deal with the NHL, we will re-enter our bid," Mansouri said.

In a perfect world, the Sabres would go to the investors who can best afford to pay for them with their own money.

But thanks to Hamister's careful cultivation of a political support structure eager to help him realize his dream, it looks like we're all going to be going into the hockey business with him.

Again, whether we want to or not.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the editor of the BuffaloPOST. He welcomes email at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com January 7 2003