Russ Brandon showed up at First Niagara Center on Monday wearing a Buffalo Sabres tie and Buffalo Bills socks.
It was only the start of how he’s going to be dividing his attention now that he’s president and alternate governor of the Sabres and managing partner/president of the Bills, the team for which he has worked since 1997 and served as president since 2013.
The new role – revealed Monday as part of an announcement by the Sabres that they have “mutually agreed to part ways” with former team president Ted Black – is the strongest sign yet of the synergy that has steadily developed between the two franchises since October, when the Bills joined the Sabres under the ownership of Terry and Kim Pegula.
Brandon said the discussion of his replacing Black began Saturday afternoon and escalated through Sunday and Monday morning. His compensation is expected to increase, although the details had yet to be worked out as of Monday, a source close to the situation told The Buffalo News. Brandon has the added title of managing partner with the Bills, the highest formal job title given to a person in charge of day-to-day operations of an organization and similar to his previous title of chief executive officer.
Brandon’s duties for the Sabres will be the same as they are for the Bills. He’ll oversee all business operations, reporting directly to the Pegulas, while leaving the hockey decisions to General Manager Tim Murray, who also will report directly to the Pegulas. That, too, is identical to the Bills’ setup, with GM Doug Whaley and coach Rex Ryan running football and reporting directly to the Pegulas.
It was the amount of available business – in the form of ticket sales, premium seating/luxury suites, and sponsorship – and the small size of the Western New York market that ultimately convinced the Pegulas to consolidate the presidency of their teams. After 10 months of showing how well he was able to capitalize on the spiking interest in the Bills – who last month broke a 23-year-old record for season-ticket sales – Brandon became the obvious choice to do the same for the Sabres as they bask in the excitement generated by the arrival of projected rookie sensation Jack Eichel.
“Small market, one ownership, and Russ allows us the ability to combine assets more effectively, leverage combined assets and create a consistent message,” a source close to the situation told The News.
In recent months, Brandon had become increasingly involved with the Sabres’ business operations. Other members of the Bills’ front office, such as senior vice president of media and content Marc Honan, have already been doing Sabres-related work in addition to their Bills responsibilities.
By most accounts, the turning point in the shift to a dual presidency came last June, when Brandon accompanied Kim Pegula and others within the franchise’s hierarchy to the NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas. Of the roughly 20 Sabres sponsors who made the trip as a perk for their investment in the team, about 16 also were sponsors of the Bills. According to a source, Brandon apparently far surpassed Black, who was also on the trip, in making a positive connection with them and that did not go unnoticed.
“And it’s a small town,” Brandon said. “We all know each other.”
In a statement released by the Sabres, Terry and Kim Pegula said that since their purchase of the Bills, they have been “highly impressed with the business acumen” Brandon has demonstrated.
“Now is an appropriate time to give him additional responsibilities with the Sabres,” the statement said. “Russ will work with Pegula Sports & Entertainment to create strong synergies between the Sabres and Bills. With Russ’ strong ties to the area business community and sponsorship partners, he will effectively position both organizations for future growth. We are grateful to Ted Black for all he has done for the Sabres organization and wish him much success in his future endeavors.”
How daunting is the task of being the president of two major professional franchises?
Beyond wardrobe selection and the fact he’ll be working from three different offices – at One Bills Drive, First Niagara Center, and the one he’ll have once Pegula Sports & Entertainment moves into its new downtown facility – Brandon insists it won’t be as difficult as it might appear.
“Every business acumen is the same,” he told The News. “The only differences are the collective bargaining agreements,” in the NFL and the NHL, “and the products.”
During a news conference at First Niagara Center, Brandon said, “I don’t think there are many challenges. I would not have accepted this role if we did not have tremendous people … I will certainly lean on my staffs. There’s some natural progression there in how the seasons play out.” With the Bills due to open training camp Friday, Brandon joked that his training-camp schedule “just got altered in a big way, so my dorm room won’t be slept-in as much. But it’s going to be an evolution.”
He said he already knows the vast majority of those in both business operations, having worked closely with some that have left the Bills for PSE and the Sabres. And he won’t be going it alone.
“This will really be an easy transition,” the source said. “There’s enough support staff within both organizations to allow him the ability to do both positions.”
Brandon said the Sabres intend to build upon the surge in interest since making Eichel the second overall pick of the NHL draft and signing him to a contract.
“I think it’s a great time,” he said. “There’s 96-percent” season-tickets “renewal rate here, great support from our corporate partners, and an unbelievably passionate fan base. But we had the same thing with the Bills and we were able to grow that over time and put the franchise on very solid footing and we’re always looking to maximize our opportunities through our entire portfolio and obviously looking to continue to make Buffalo a great hockey destination.”
The Bills and Sabres aren’t the only franchises in different sports but with one owner to have this structure. Dennis Lauscha is president of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans; Peter McLoughlin is president of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, represents Paul Allen’s ownership interest in Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders FC, and is on the board of directors for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers; Scott O’Neil is CEO of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, and Josh Kroenke is president of the Denver Nuggets and owner of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche.
“I can’t stress enough: it’s about people,” Brandon said. “And with the strength of both staffs and PSE, the good times are ahead.”