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A wrapup of the Empire State Games that didn't happen

Today would be the day where I would probably have finished my recovery.

From what? From covering the Empire State Games. The event would have been held from Wednesday of last week to this past Sunday. Monday I would have been wiped out from running all over the Rochester area and doing stories on some of the top athletes of Western New York.

It would have been exhausting, but it would have been worth it.

But obviously, none of those things happened.

Here's my column from last Wednesday, printed on the day on which the Games opening ceremony would have been held. The headline says it all: "Bring back the Empire State Games."

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Here are a few more points & random thoughts & such regarding The Games that bounced around my head or hit the cutting room floor in the process of writing the column:

* One of my favorite things about the Games was the upstate-downstate accent showdown. As a native Long Islander who lived in Ithaca for a spell and has been a Western New Yorker for most of my adult life, I get a huge kick out of hearing the varying degrees of "ball" and "tournament," among others.

* I almost tied in the fact that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's father, Mario, obviously oversaw many Empire Games and perhaps that might help a return of the Games. At that point I'm pretty sure I would have set a record for governors mentioned in a sports section story.

OK, enough with the goofy stuff.

* Question No. 1 I can hear people asking: "Hasn't the Empire Games competition level dropped from years past? Isn't it a far cry from when future NBA stars and Olympians would compete?" 

No. While sport specialization has led to sports like basketball not getting the absolute top level of player, there are many other sports which had major Division I recruits and future stars.

Even with the AAU events, hoops still had some very good players and provided a competitive event. The problem of not getting the very top talent was mostly due to a conflict with major AAU events  in the last weekend of July. But check out the Western roster at this upcoming weekend's BCANY Hoops Showcase, an event organized by the Basketball Coaches Association of New York to replace the Empire Games -- it's a super collection of talent. What a difference a week makes.

Hockey (Chicago Blackhawk Pat Kane of Buffalo leads a long list of top tier talent through the years) and lacrosse (full of players going to major programs) are just two examples of sports that had their best competing. Track and field saw many of WNY's best last summer. Same for soccer, volleyball, baseball and softball.

The "smaller" the sport, often the better the chance of having a top level of talent, just because the Empires provided those sports with a stage they didn't get elsewhere. Synchronized swimming and gymnastics are two examples where the best would complete because, among other reasons, it was a multi-sport event. 

* Questions No. 2 through 25 or so I can hear people asking focus on the concept of Buffalo becoming a permanent home for the Games.

Like I wrote in the column, it would be challenging -- it would take some serious organization and dedicated staff -- but it's possible, and there would be some serious economic impact to reward the host area. Maybe I need to hook up with the leaders of local hotel and restaurant business associations to help push this part 🙂

Being able to pick the brains of the small, dedicated staff that ran the Games out of Albany is the key. There is a template to run a statewide event out of a very small office. That's they way it was done for years. It can be done again.  

Maybe there's a Buffalo-Rochester partnership so there's shared workload and shared benefits. Western (a region that includes both cities) has a super-strong tradition in the Empire Games and I'm not sure another region in the state would be as well equipped to take it on. 

What about other sites? Syracuse was the permanent home of the Games early on, but they haven't hosted in a while and seemed to have been disinterested with hosting. I have long said that Binghamton was the best site to hold the Games because of the size of the city and its ability to embrace the Games, but that city doesn't have the amount of companies to be potential sponsors, nor a title sponsor along the lines of First Niagara.

Would downstaters on Long Island and New York City make the trip every year? I think so. All but two Empire Games (Long Island and Westchester County) were held "downstate." All others required a serious road trip: Poughkeepsie, Albany, Binghamton, Syracuse/Cortland, Utica, Ithaca, Rochester, Buffalo. Sure, that road trip is longest to Buffalo, but it hardly deterred participation in previous games.

Long Island has had a great Games tradition despite only hosting the Games once. New York City was at times hit-or-miss with its organization, but that was largely due, I think, to the unenviable task of trying to promote a amateur, grass roots-type event in a city of millions. 

And, take it from someone who has road-tripped LI-to-Buffalo literally hundreds of times: it's a pretty decent drive. The key is cutting through New Jersey and Pennsylvania: George Washington Bridge to I-80 across Jersey, I-380 up to Pa. and I-81 to Binghamton. I-86/Rt. 17 West to I-390, then the Rt. 36/63 cut through to Batavia, and little bit of the Thruway and there you are (you can also stay on 81 to Syracuse and take the Thruway). Eight hours ballpark, but it can be done in less than seven 🙂

What about the competition? Western dominated the overall medal count in all but of three of the Games. Why should they get a homefield advantage and likely have a superteam? Good point. Here's were some outside-the-box stuff has to come into play. The Empire Games have always had six regions, but maybe a new Games could follow the BCANY Hoops approach by splitting up Buffalo and Rochester (it also split the population-rich Hudson Valley into HV and mid-Hudson). The eight teams would be a curveball to the template of the Games, which is why this is outside the box. But it's worth a look & listen. 

What about the participation fees? Can the visitors get a break on those? It's worth throwing out there. Last year's Games required significant fees from participants for the first time. Those fees are a key revenue stream to make this operation work. Since Buffalonians would not have the travel costs of other regions, perhaps the home team would pay a few dollars more per competitor to balance out the gas money, hotel rooms and restaurant bills racked up by families traveling from out-of-town (which are the same expenses that ultimately benefit the Buffalo area).

* Then there was the recent news over the weekend that First Niagara would purchase many of the HSBC bank branches that are being divested. The customer base and footprint of First Niagara in New York State took another huge step. I would view that as good news for Empire Games fans since First Niagara played the role of white knight as the title sponsor for the 2010 Buffalo Games.

With the dedication the company showed to last year's Games, I think a successful restart of the event, whether it is run out of Albany or run by -- and based out of -- Buffalo, would rely heavily on First Niagara's involvement.

* * * 

A mini-"research material" section of links I used in writing my column: The wikipedia entry for the Empire State Games is very helpful, especially since the state made the Games site -- which included a lot of great history -- disappear after pulling the plug (this is what passes for the state's site now). ... For fans of Canalside, you should definitely read up on this guy. ... Can Buffalo host the Games by themselves? Based on this page of testimonials praising the Buffalo Niagara Sports Commission, why not? ... The Times-Herald Record of Middletown has a couple of fine stories by Ken McMillan regarding the absence of this year's Games -- along with a ton of info on last year's Games. 

* * * 

And here is some feedback from the original column received via email: 

* "Great column today ... you had me at 'Clinton's Ditch.' The Empire State Games' demise was something I'd never have imagined not too long ago. I sincerely hope your comments light a fire under the right tinder; it would be awesome if Greater Buffalo/UB could take the reins because we unquestionably have the best collective array of facilities to pull this off." -- Frank, City of Tonawanda

"You are so right! As a mom of a baseball coach for the varsity boys for the past four years, we loved every minute of the Games each year we attended -- and my son was only a coach; he never had the opportunity to play. What can we do to get your idea going??? Whatever you do: Count me in! Petitions, calls, etc. Please keep your fire burning on this because I know Buffalo would certainly benefit. Hopefully John Koemel will respond to you and with some movers & shakers. New Era Cap perhaps, Bob Rich, Ralph Wilson, Terry Pegula, Chris Collins, Kathy Hochul, Tim Kennedy, the Gronkowski Brothers? Jim Kelly? And all the former athletes you can contact." -- Nancy

* "Empire State Games never to be forgotten, hopefully to be restored in Buffalo! Thank you for well-written article," -- Dorothy, Town of Tonawanda.

* * *

What happens now? I'm not sure. Write a letter to the editor or, better yet, to Gov. Cuomo.

I'd love to have to write an update regarding the Empire State Games. 

---Keith McShea
(@KeithMcSheaBN on Twitter)

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