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White’s idea to rebrand UB as 'New York' was a swing and a miss

Allen Greene was Danny White’s top aide when he was hired in 2012 and agreed with the decision a year later to implement the New York Bulls Initiative. The essential goal in magnifying the state’s name in UB’s athletic brand was to expand the market.

They wanted to get people talking about Buffalo athletics. They wanted to show that the University at Buffalo was the state’s flagship school. They wanted to generate more interest and attract top people to UB with the idea it would improve athletics and help build a stronger fan base.

White largely took it upon himself to roll out a marketing strategy that people didn’t understand and certainly didn’t embrace. NYBI? It seemed like some Wall Street insurance company. He spent good money, your money, on a campaign that many found confusing, annoying and unnecessary.

“Think about the start of our Division I history,” Greene, who replaced White as athletic director, said Tuesday. “We were underfunded. We did not have the resources in place. Maybe we didn’t have the right mentality. When you come in, you say, ‘We need to shock the system. How can we shock the system?’

“We had to create a vision that got people excited about coming here. When I say ‘people’ – coaches, administrators, student-athletes. How are we going to do that unless you’re bold? You have to do something that has not been done before. It started when Danny got here.”

[March 19, 2015: What's with "New York" on UB's jerseys? A refresher]

And it ended Tuesday, which was less than five months after Danny left here. The university, including its Athletic Department, announced a rebranding in which they will be consistent with one another. They’re restoring the importance of Buffalo in UB sports. Teams will now be known as the Buffalo Bulls.

It makes sense.

Words such as “shock” and “bold” sounded like something from Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” tour back in the 1980s. She exploited the idea that all publicity is good publicity. I’m still not sure what the Kardashian sisters do for a living, but they turned that approach into a multimillion-dollar industry.

It wasn’t clear what White and, by extension, Greene, was doing a few years ago until it became clear Tuesday. For lack of a better word, the New York Bulls Initiative was a gimmick. People associate gimmicks with trickery. They come across as a seedy, I suppose, but there’s a reason for them.

They work. Gimmicks are usually temporary fixes to deeper problems, of course. UB was desperate to create a splash. In fact, it did start conversations and raise awareness about its athletic teams. Greene knows firsthand that it contributed to raising money. NYBI was not, as some believe, a total disaster.

“The marketplace didn’t care one way or the other about UB athletics,” Greene said. “Really, the branding is what people see. The branding was a way for us to tell our story. For us to tell the story of UB and translate that with athletics around the country, some people didn’t understand what we were trying to accomplish.”

Let me be clear: White wasn’t wrong to make the attempt. He asked people to change their mindset, to think bigger and embrace better. The region has needed a few swift kicks from progressive thinkers. He was the wrong guy and used the wrong foot. The mistake was in his execution, not the idea itself, even though restoring it was the right move.

Buffalo Bulls guard Blake Hamilton (0) scores two points over Miami (Fl) Hurricanes guard Davon Reed (5) in the second half in first round of NCAA Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence,RI on Thursday, March 17, 2016. (James P. McCoy/ Buffalo News)

The "New York" uniform worn by Buffalo Bulls guard Blake Hamilton during the Bulls' NCAA Tournament game on March 17. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

NYBI was clumsy from the beginning.

It wasn’t a simple matter of font size. He didn’t understand that minimizing “Buffalo” in the name also meant minimizing Buffalo, N.Y.

People from Buffalo don’t appreciate someone passing through town, on their way to somewhere else, deciding what they should call their teams.

Rather than welcome people aboard, White alienated alumni and insulted loud and proud people. However, it also had the desired effect that Greene confirmed Tuesday. While many complained about NYBI, others agreed with the approach. It led to more discussions about UB athletics. It triggered conversation and interest.

In some small, strange way, it made UB interesting.

During back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament, for example, the men’s basketball team was forced to answer questions about “New York” being visible on their jerseys while “Buffalo” remained in fine print. At least people cared enough, or were curious enough, to ask.

“Our charge was to make athletics competitive and relevant,” Greene said. “I think those two things were accomplished.”

Looking back, it made more sense to try something unconventional and fall short than doing nothing and hoping some miracle comes along. But let’s be honest here, too. If the New York Bulls Initiative was a big hit that generated the money and interest intended, it would have been expanded before it was abolished.

The university spent big bucks on the campaign and will spend big bucks undoing the campaign.

“Updating,” Greene said with a smile. “Or how about ‘refreshing?’ ”

UB can use whatever word it wants, but it’s not going to be cheap. The new artificial turf on the football field, which was needed regardless of whether NYBI was implemented, will need to be “adjusted” to reflect the new logo. The basketball court will need similar changes. New uniforms will be needed.

What’s in a name?

The rebranding includes everything from merchandise sold in stores to signs on campus to bumper stickers. Some costs will be offset by UB supporters buying new gear. They could have saved themselves time and money if they asked 100 people going into a Sabres’ game how they felt about NYBI.

Fortunately, UB administrators weren’t stubborn. They recognized the value in “Buffalo” at the university. White was so intent on making it work that it’s tough to imagine him conceding defeat.

White was a classic example of an outsider acting like a big-timer who would show Buffalo how things were done. His approach may work in other places where college athletics are king, but it doesn’t fly here. There was a sense he was trying to make UB something it definitely was not.

It’s not Ohio State or Michigan State or Penn State or Florida State.

It’s just UB.

And that’s OK.

We’ll see if the same people who whined about “Buffalo” taking a backseat to “New York” will be at the front of the line for tickets. Attendance at football games in particular has been embarrassing for years. They should know that basketball season starts in November, not March.

If half of the alums who whined about the New York Bulls Initiative actually supported the program they care about so much, the university wouldn’t have needed the initiative in the first place. Perhaps the latest bold decision will shock them into action.

“It’s crossed my mind,” Greene said, “for a long period of time.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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