Sabres reach out with Summit

The Sabres hosted New Media Summit 3.0 last Monday, an event that served as a suitable hockey teaser before settling in for Game #6 of the Cup final. (Congrats to the Los Angeles Kings for achieving the balance of skill and toughness that keyed their first ever championship.) The Sabres continuing to recognize the hours that folks put in to write about their product is always appreciated, so a proper thank you should be extended to all of the employees who rounded out their Monday with a few extra hours on company time.

I always find these gatherings interesting. The Sabres have been gracious hosts each and every time (add two beers to my tab) but these ultimately turn into a Ted Black press conference based on a line of questioning. This go-round was no different, except this time it was initiated by the team with the announcement of Sabres Hockey Hotline, a daily show hosted by Kevin Sylvester from 10AM-12:00PM set to provide a daily puck fix in a bustling hockey market. The team also discussed the future broadcasting roles of Brian Duff, Rob Ray, and others. 

Prior to the event, I submitted three questions. The first was about the American Top Prospects Game. While surely still in planning phase, I was curious if a Skills Competition or perhaps local showcase would be attached to the event. The second was a general question about the challenges of conducting business with the specter of a work stoppage looming. The final questions asked whether or not the business model supported a purchase of an ECHL franchise.

The first two questions were dealt with as part of a general answer session emceed by VP of Brand Strategy and Marketing Brent Rossi, where direct replies were given on commonly asked questions that did not pertain to game presentation. There weren't many updates to offer on the Prospects Game, which is understandable seeing that the event is still a few months out. Possibilities of a player draft much like the NHL All-Star Game are being considered, but there is much to be determined outside of that. Any questions relating to the collective bargaining agreement weren't going to be addressed, which makes sense given the fragility and scope of the issue.

Once that round was wrapped up, a general Q&A was opened with a special focus on game presentation. Aside from Black and Mike Gilbert, the team made their Director of Game Presentation Jenifer Dunford, and VP of Broadcasting Chrisanne Bellas available to address what was expected to be a lively discussion based on the amount of tweets and rumblings throughout the year.

For me, game presentation is the least of my Sabres concerns. I'll never undermine its role in cultivating a family friendly atmosphere, but you're talking to a guy who enjoys bleachers, free parking, and rinks that stink like a hockey bag. I'm a simple, easy subject, for I'm usually happy that all bulbs in the scoreboard are working. And I'm not kidding when I say that my favorite food is chicken soup from the vending machine.

From a business perspective, though, it's important for the Sabres to hear the voice of the fans who do have an opinion. A better game presentation equals better overall entertainment. Even if the team is losing 6-0 in the second period, the show must go on. The crew clearly wanted thoughts on what they admit is a tough issue to navigate, and while some questions were asked and answered (the intermission chime, more giveaways, more t-shirt cannons in the 300s, placement of Jason Pominville's You Can Play Project PSA, thoughts on the blooper reel), I'm not sure how much headway was made.  

I eventually took the opportunity to ask Black about the team possibly having an interest expanding their footprint via the purchase of an ECHL franchise. The rationale is strictly from brand development standpoint. If I triangulate Buffalo and Rochester with the Elmira Jackals, a "AA" franchise positioned closer to the Pennsylvania border (i.e. not too far from Terry Pegula's Penn State University), I see an opportunity to broaden reach, own another arena (and its associated bills), contribute to youth hockey development, and simply put another blue and gold "Sabres U" stamp in a NY hockey post. It's not purely philanthropic, but it's not exactly a revenue generator either.

Black at first perceived my question from a developmental angle stating, “It’s rare for an ECHL guy to make a jump, so as of right now we are focused on getting Rochester going as a development model, and then if that ECHL team can help Rochester, which helps us, then we will look at that.”

When I asked about it from the marketing perspective, he hinted at things like size of market and staffing as things that likely knock it down the list of priorities. Frankly I'm good winning the Stanley Cup before the Kelly Cup. (As a side note, how cool was it to see former ECHLer Jonathan Quick hoist the Conn Smythe Trophy following his excellent playoff run?)

By the way, part of Black's ECHL answer was a reference to Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos, who also presides over the OHL's Plymouth Whalers, as a comparison to Pegula's Sabres/ Jr. Sabres relationship absent of any "AA" involvement. In that regard, I'm proud to have indirectly help crowbar a CHL reference into the evening.

Other open questions referred to the lack of a season ending press conference and the team's social media identity moving forward. On that front, the team has developed I.C.E. - Interactive Community Experience - which essentially is the confluence of all Sabres social media vehicle in one centralized space.

I openly stated that the summit format was "vastly improved". Aside from the added press release to start it off, the first segment was an efficient way to handle the FAQs and the time was there for the taking on the popular game presentation angle. The revamped "round table" seating style was designed for more back-and-forth discussion than previous summits, and those in attendance were given the opportunity to engage new topics and reprise older ones. Events like this are what you make of it, and I feel that those who took advantage of the privilege did a good job.

Lastly, I said this after the first summit and I'll say it again - Ted Black is a stand-up guy. My professional dealings have given me a decent gauge of when folks are being genuine, and I think it's important for Sabres fans to know of that trait in the Sabres front office. He wants these meetings to be productive in an effort to present the most desirable product possible. If anyone feels that I'm schmoozing the guy (by the way I can almost guarantee that Ted doesn't read this space), I'd implore them to walk over and say hi if he's around. I bet he'll give you a few minutes.
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