The Buffalo Sabres: Growing Strong

The Buffalo Sabres entered the NHL in 1970, along with the Vancouver Canucks as part of the expansion to 14 teams.  The Sabres have played 42 years in Buffalo and during those years the Blue and Gold have become part of the Western New York culture. The Sabres are part of this regions DNA, and hockey runs in WNY’s blood.  The Sabres have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals two times in their 42 years. Their first trip was way back in 1975 vs. the Philadelphia Flyers (The Fog Game), and their second trip was in 1999 vs. the Dallas Stars (No Goal). Sadly for Buffalo both finals appearances did not turn out well. The Sabres as an organization have a .553 Win percentage and a record of 3328 Games Played, 1590 W, 1240 L, 409 T, 48 OTL, 41 SOL.

Retired Jersey Numbers                                                                                                                                                  

The French Connection: Gilbert Perreault   #11 Rick Martin #7 Rene Robert #14

Tim Horton #2, Pat LaFontaine #16, Danny Gare #18

Sabres Fans Saw Red Wanted Blue

The Buffalo Sabres fan base has ridden many waves. There are three eras that stick out in most fans mind. The Red and Black era or as it is called by some diehard fans “ the Goat Head Jersey”  During this era the Sabres may have been the hardest working team in the NHL. While the Sabres had some success as a franchise, they also have been to the bottom of the mountain. In 2002 the NHL had to take over the Sabres, and that lead to a lot of rumors that the Sabres may be leaving WNY forever. In March of 2003 Tom Golisano was named the new owner, and another Sabres era was born. However if you ask a true Sabres fan they will tell you they only saw Blue and Gold. Sabres fans have always connected with the classic colors; so much so that in 2006 Buffalo would once again wear the treasured Blue and Gold. In hind sight this era is known as the “Slug Jersey”.  While looking at Jerseys as eras may seem funny to most, around Buffalo you can spot fans by the colors they wear. It’s just a Buffalo thing.

The Sabres Brand and Marketing: Brent Rossi Interview

Over the Sabres 42 year history they have created a brand and a marketing tool that keeps them connected to WNY and the hockey world.  On January 11, 2012 the Buffalo Sabres took a big step in assuring their brand would continue to grow. The Sabres introduced Brent Rossi as VP of Brand Strategy and Marketing. Brent earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management from Brock University, and a master’s degree in sports management from Old Dominion University. “Rossi comes to the Sabres with a decade of experience in professional sports marketing. Most recently, Rossi served as the vice president of marketing for the Harlem Globetrotters. His experience also includes stints as senior manager of live event marketing with World Wrestling Entertainments, director of marketing for the Philadelphia 76ers and marketing manager for Comcast-Spectator .Sabres.com.”

Q: Since joining the Buffalo Sabres in January of 2012 what have you learned about the Buffalo, and Western New York Hockey market?

A: There is no market that is more passionate about hockey than Buffalo and Western New York.  The sport is a part of the fabric of the city and it in many ways defines the culture of the market.

Thoughts: There are very few NHL markets that can honestly compete with Buffalo. All someone needs to do is look at the NHL ratings for playoff games. While the Sabres have not been in the mix in a while; this market is normally in the top 5 for viewing audience. That aside the Sabres have a season ticket renewal rate of around 99%, and have a waiting list for tickets.

 

Q: What did you know about the Buffalo Sabres before joining their organization?

A: I grew up in Port Colborne, Ontario.  My dad would take me to 5-10 Sabres games each year while I living at home.  I’ve always loved the team.

Thoughts: It’s nice to have a “local” guy running a brand that means so much to its community. It helps to assure that nothing will be done to tarnish Buffalo, or its team.

 

Q: When Mr. Black introduced you to Buffalo, and Sabres fans he said you had a goal of growing the brand throughout the Hockey world.  What steps have you taken towards that goal and how has it been going?

A: The brand for a company is like a reputation for a person.  A strong brand is built on solid organization behavior, not copy-writing. My goals in terms of growing the already strong Buffalo Sabres brand is to make decisions and promote the team based on our brand promise and position to our fans and ensure consistency across all aspects of our business.

Thoughts:  It would seem that there is more to growing the Sabres brand than just tossing some advertisements out to the masses. If the Sabres are not a class act, it’s just smoke and mirrors. Lucky for the Sabres they are among the top organization in the NHL as when come to listening to their fans, and they seem to have the middle ground between just doing business, and respecting the region they play in.

 

Q: Buffalo has a very smart, and in touch fan base, does that make things more challenging? On the flip side, how does having such a connected fan base help with branding and marketing?

A: I wouldn’t say it makes it more challenging, but it definitely influences our strategies in terms of relevant content creation and distribution.

Thoughts: Working in a high hockey IQ market, the Sabres understand that they cannot just toss random things out to the WNY market.  The Sabres need to think about what they are doing. It needs to not insult their market, and it needs to fit the area. It’s hard to fool  a smart fan base, and it’s better business to respect that.       

Q: How did your time working for the WWE, and the Globetrotters translate to working in the NHL?

A: Both companies provided unique experiences in their own way.   The biggest difference in my opinion was regional marketing vs. national marketing.  The WWE and Globetrotters were rarely in the same market/city more than 2 or 3 times a year, which influences the branding and marketing strategies from a local perspective.  The Buffalo Sabres are a part of the fabric of this city and then the strategy for brand development, brand position and brand consistency are driven by a completely different set of factors and motivations.

Thoughts:  The Sabres demand a local style of marketing, and while on some levels they are smaller than the WWE, and the Globetrotters the Sabres do draw from the entire hockey market both in the US and world stage. Locally the Sabres have been able to stay home-grown and direct their strategies to show their roots.

 

Q: The Blue and Gold almost sells itself with in WNY. What challenges have you faced marketing the Sabres Brand outside the region, and have the “small market” image hurt the Sabres in any way?

A: In regard to our marketing territory, per NHL rules, we are restricted to 50 mile radius.  With that being said, we have one of the larger contingent of fans outside of Buffalo who continue to support our team.  We put on several Road Crew events per year that allows our fans in other NHL cities to interact with various Sabres alumni and personalities.  Also, the growth of social and digital media over the past several years has allowed us to extend our brand outside of WNY and interact with our fans all over the country.

Thoughts: The Sabres are lucky to have so many transplanted Sabres fans living all over the country. Understand that has made it easier for the organization to appeal to those fans. Using social media, and finding creative ways to give their loyal fan base access to the players of the past and present is one way the Sabres keep their brand moving forward.

 

Q: With the Sabres struggles over the past few years fans have taken to letting their voices be heard. How does the fan base affect the way the Sabres do business?

A: From purely a hockey standpoint, our goal is to win the Stanley Cup.  That has and will never change. From a customer service, communication and fan experience perspective, we want and invite as much feedback as possible from our fans and always looking for new ways to enhance their overall experience with our brand and product.

Thoughts:  The Sabres are not unlike most NHL teams in that their goal is to win the Stanley Cup However the Sabres have done a great job of listening to fans and learning from their fans. While going to a hockey game is enough for me, some fans need an entrainment experience, and the Sabres have been able to give that to those fans.

 

Q: What effect did the lockout have on the Sabres brand, and what did the Sabres do to recover from the lockout?

A: We are extremely fortunate to be in the market we are.  Our season ticket holder renewal rate was over 99% and our TV ratings were some of the highest we’ve ever had.  This fan base continues to support us and we are extremely grateful for the loyalty they have shown throughout the history of the franchise.

Thoughts: For a franchise that calls itself Hockey Heaven the Sabres have been very lucky that fans have continued to spend their hard-earned money. There are very few markets in the NHL that would continue to support a team that very seldom delivers on it goal; but when hockey is a life blood of a community that just how it goes.

 

Q: With the Sabres being such a draw in Buffalo, and WNY there must be some give and take with the fan base. What are some challenges that the Sabres have face over the past 1 ½ that you have been in Buffalo?

A: To be honest with our biggest challenge is limited tickets availability for the majority of our games. In my opinion, the experience of a live hockey game is unlike any other sporting event.  We want all of our fans to be able to experience what it’s like to watch their favorite team live.  We’ve implemented various programs over the past several years (including Family Packs, our Student Surge Program, etc.) to ensure that our live game can be accessible and affordable to all fans.

Thoughts: There was a time when getting a Sabres ticket was as easy as walking up to the ticket window. Now that’s not the case. The Sabres have done a lot to insure fans can come watch their team. There have been Parties in the Plaza for playoff games, and there have various ticket packages offered.  I think it would be nice to have Sabres sponsored fan parties at some local taverns. While hockey is best watched live, it is second best watch with a bunch of fans.                                     

 

Q: With a new owner came a new image, and some new challenges, has it been difficult to balance all the changes with the traditions of Buffalo hockey?

A: No.  We have the best owners in all of sport.  They embrace the history of our team, and the fan base in Buffalo.  Every Buffalo Sabres fan should be extremely proud to have the owners we do.

Thoughts:  I am a Sabres fan, and with the new owner did come a lot of good things in the First Niagara Center. However that is where it stops. The on ice product has yet to live up to many fans hopes and in some ways has not even come close to what we as fans were told. But, that does not take away from what the new owner, or the Sabres front office is trying to do. It is very refreshing to have a team want to rebuild and better the city they play in. The Sabres have become a very big part of rebuilding Buffalo, and I only hope that as the city improves so does the team.

 

Some people believe Buffalo is small market.  The Sabres are not small market; they play in a premier hockey market. Don’t get confused by the population of a team’s city. As long as the Brand stays strong and people like Rossi are in control of the Sabres image this market will continue to grow.  The Sabres are Buffalo, and Buffalo is the Sabres.

 

 

 

 

Topics: Brent Rossi, Buffalo Sabres, Danny Gare, Gilbert Perreault, Pat Lafontaine, Rene Robert, Rick Martin, Terry Pegula, The French Connection, Tim Horton

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