Terry Pegula says a new football stadium is “nothing urgent right now,” expressed no desire to sell naming rights on Ralph Wilson Stadium and called the last two Buffalo Sabres campaigns “two of the most successful seasons we’ve ever had.”
Those were the noteworthy points made Thursday during a “Business of Sports” breakfast held by Buffalo Business First at Buffalo RiverWorks.
The owner of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres was joined on the panel by his wife, Kim, owner/president of Pegula Sports & Entertainment, along with: Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of Delaware North and owner of the Boston Bruins; Robert E. Rich Jr., chairman of Rich Products Corp. and owner of the Buffalo Bisons, Rich’s wife, Mindy, president of the Rich Entertainment Group; and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and numerous high-powered NFL owners are on record as saying a new stadium eventually is necessary for Western New York. Pegula stuck to politically correct comments on the issue, given $130 million in renovations on Ralph Wilson Stadium just were completed last year.
“The only answer to that question is the state and county, there’s been a lot of money put into Ralph Wilson Stadium,” Pegula said. “We’re in no hurry. We realize that if that work was just done, how foolish would you look if you start looking around for a new stadium when we’ve just renovated the one we have? We have time. We have an existing lease on the current stadium.”
The Bills’ lease runs through the 2022 season.
Pegula was asked if he was confident the community will be supportive when the day comes you need to make a decision on the stadium.
“I hope so,” he said. “But it’s nothing urgent right now.”
On selling naming rights, Pegula said: “I am very cognizant of the fact that Ralph Wilson owned the Bills for so long and his name on the stadium is to me right now a special thing. I have a hard time answering that question.”
“Standing on the field for the first time was like, do I even deserve to be here? Because that was quite an accomplishment,” Pegula said of Wilson’s 55-year ownership of the Bills.
Despite the fact the Sabres finished with the worst record in the NHL the past two years, Pegula expressed optimism about the club in the wake of its selection of Jack Eichel in the draft last month.
“People may not believe this, but I think our last two years were two of the most successful seasons we’ve ever had. We were rebuilding.”
“But trust me,” Pegula said, pointing to Jacobs, who was sitting next to him, “Jerry’s probably looking in his rear-view mirror now saying, ‘These guys may be coming.’ He’s up there, we’re down here. But that was part of the program. By the way, we love the way the whole community just seemed to get the plan and followed along with us. It didn’t show up in the wins and losses but it’s going to show up in the future.”
The 90-minute panel discussion was a feel-good event for a crowd of roughly 500. The Western New York sports titans gave plenty of respect to their customers.
On buying the Bills, Pegula said: “The Sabres was a big event in town. The Bills was a tsunami. ... We thought it was almost an obligation to step up and take over the Bills for our community and the region.”
“I believe that the purpose of our two franchises, or one of the purposes, is to help everybody in this room be successful,” Pegula said. “If our teams are successful, if we’re successful, hopefully everybody’s business increases and improves, not only on the business side, but socially. In the inner city, we’re here to help and to expand the success that we hope comes to Western New York in the future. None of us need to hang our head to anybody. Our region is a good place to live, and there’s a lot of good people here. Our mission I believe is to help foster and improve our quality of life here through these sports teams.”
In answering a question about how lucrative sports ownership is, Rich drew big laughs in referring to the Pegulas’ former business.
“It’s not as lucrative as fracking,” he quipped.
Bob and Mindy Rich, incidentally, never had met Terry and Kim Pegula until Thursday’s event.
“Our paths just never had crossed,” Bob Rich said. “So many people would ask me, ‘What kind of guy is Terry?’ Finally I just started saying, ‘Oh, he’s a great guy.’ ”
The owners were asked to name an athlete who inspired them.
Mindy Rich, a Cincinnati native, told a story about meeting former Reds manager Sparky Anderson.
“I’ll see your Sparky Anderson and I’ll raise you one Jim Kelly,” said Bob Rich, to applause. “There’s never been a more loyal, tougher, stronger person than Jim Kelly in sports. I’d take a baseball team full of Jim Kellys.”
Terry Pegula said his childhood hero was baseball Hall-of-Famer Al Kaline.
“I remember late in his career the Tigers tried to pay him $100,000 and he wouldn’t accept it,” Pegula said. “He thought he wasn’t worth that much. In ’68 when the Tigers won the Series, they were down, 3-1, to St. Louis. They had put Mickey Stanley” at shortstop “from the outfield so Al could play right field, and he delivered big hits and they came back and won it.”