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NEW OWNERS HOPE TO BRING SABRES OUT OF FINANCIAL SLUMP

Can the impending marriage between the Buffalo Sabres and the Rigas family's cable television system rescue the National Hockey League franchise from its deep financial troubles?

The Rigas family, which is expected to become the franchise's majority owner next week, thinks that combining Adelphia's cable operations with the Sabres could open the door to the new markets and revenue sources that the team badly needs to stem its losses.

"We're embarking on a unique experiment," Timothy J. Rigas, Adelphia's executive vice president and chief financial officer, said Thursday.

"What we want to do is figure out the synergies we can create," Rigas said Thursday. "We view it as a challenge and a matter of trying to be creative in a smaller market so that we can remain competitive."

But, as reported Thursday, the Sabres have lost about $15 million during each of the last three years and are saddled with nearly $81 million in total debt.

Rigas has been picked by his father, John, chairman of Adelphia, as the family's point man to oversee the day-to-day business operations of the Sabres. The younger Rigas acknowledged that solving the team's financial problems won't be easy.

Still, Rigas said the new owners are looking at several ways to bring more revenue to the team. And just as important, the link between the Sabres and Adelphia's cable network offers the chance to strengthen both businesses, Rigas said.

By broadcasting 70 regular-season games a year, plus playoff games, the Sabres provide Adelphia with the cornerstone of its programming for its Empire Sports Network.

With only a handful of games broadcast on WNYO-TV Channel 49, the Sabres broadcasts give Adelphia a powerful magnet to attract subscribers to its local cable television operations.

In addition, Rigas said the new Marine Midland Arena gives Adelphia a chance to market its cable television, telephone and Internet connection services to the more than 1 million people who attend events in the arena each year.

And because the Empire Sports Network is carried throughout upstate New York, Rigas hopes to use the network's programming to develop even more interest in the Sabres and capture the attention of more fans in outlying markets, especially in Rochester and northwestern Pennsylvania.

Rigas said he also hopes to increase the Sabres market in Canada, which now accounts for only about 8 percent of the team's season-ticket base. That effort also is hampered by the lack of Sabres telecasts on Canadian cable systems.

That growing fan interest could, in turn, increase ticket sales and allow the team to charge more for the advertising it sells in the arena and for the rights to its radio broadcasts, Rigas said.

The desire to win more fans over to the Sabres bandwagon and overcome the loss of 1,600 season tickets since the end of last season helped prod the team into agreeing to a new $32 million contract with star goalie Dominik Hasek earlier this month, he said.

While Hasek's $7 million salary next season will put a heavy burden on a team that now has a total payroll in the low $20 million range, Rigas said the signing signaled the new ownership's commitment to the franchise.

"We felt it would be in the best interest of the team and fan support to step up and sign that contract," Rigas said. "We need to generate more fan support and more dollars from the gate."

The new owners also plan to continue the team's push to renegotiate its lease at the Marine Midland Arena to save as much as $6 million a year, Rigas said.

But those potential sources of new revenue also could be eaten up by rising expenses, mainly from soaring player salaries and a debt load that requires annual interest payments of about $9 million a year.

Adelphia holds much of that debt, which means the new owners will owe some of it to themselves.

Still, the team also has a significant amount of debt to outside lenders, Rigas said.

"We need to come up with a way to get out from under that third-party debt," he said.

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