Despite their position near the bottom of the National Hockey League standings, the Buffalo Sabres’ TV ratings are up about 50 percent from a year ago at just about the perfect time.
The team’s TV contract with the Madison Square Network expires after the 2016-17 season and the strong ratings put the Sabres in a position of strength in negotiations that have already begun.
“We are encouraged by our preliminary renewal talks with MSG,” said Mark Preisler, the executive vice president for Media & Content for Pegula Sports and Entertainment. “We share the mutual goal of wanting to provide our fans more extensive Sabres and Bills coverage across WNY.”
It is likely the Sabres goal to have MSG agree to add a separate Buffalo feed here to provide more Buffalo sports programming. If that happens, there would no need for Bills and Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula to start their own regional sports network similar to the former Empire Sports Network. A regional sports network would be a much more expensive proposition than having a separate MSG channel to carry more Sabres and Bills programming.
Of course, the devil may be in the financial details. The Sabres are expected to get a $10 million rights fee in the final year of their TV deal and want to substantially increase that in a new deal.
Time Warner Cable already carries two MSG channels on nights that the Sabres and the New York sports teams have scheduling conflicts.
There is much more time to work out a TV deal than a radio deal. The Sabres current deal with Entercom, which owns sports station WGR, expires after this season.
The Sabres have done some radio experimenting this season. Most notably, a handful of games haven’t been simulcast with MSG and there are several more coming with two different announcing teams.
There are multiple reasons for the experiment. The team is preparing for life after Hall of Fame play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret, whose popularity is the primary reason for the simulcasts. Additionally, if the Sabres were to buy a local radio group to produce the games, they most likely would have separate radio and TV teams next season.
That isn’t out of the question if talks sour with Entercom, which also owns WBEN and WKBW on the AM dial and WKSE and WLKK on the FM dial in the Buffalo market.
One potential acquisition property is Cumulus Media. There hasn’t been any talk that it has put its Buffalo stations or any stations up for sale, but Cumulus is struggling nationally and any group in that position might consider a sale if the price is right. This week, it had a share price of 33 cents. It owns 97 Rock, 103.3 The Edge, 104.1 and 1270 The Fan. The Pegulas could buy the group, put the Sabres games on one of the powerful FM stations and try to sell the other stations in the market. Radio sources say it wouldn’t be easy, but add it could possibly be done.
The Bills contract with Entercom also expires after the 2016 season, which could be another incentive for the Pegulas to buy local radio stations.
But that could be getting ahead of the game.
Entercom, which has one of the strongest sports stations in the country in WGR, wouldn’t want to lose the Sabres or the Bills without a fight.
Jeff Silver is out as the general manager of the Townsquare Media radio stations in town, which include FM stations WYRK, WBLK-FM, WMSK (Mix 96) and WBUF (Jack FM, 92.9)
Rob Williams, who is based in Greenwich, Conn., is the interim general manager as the company starts a search for Silver’s replacement. Williams was the general manager of WJYE-FM (now Mix 96) and WECK-AM more than 20 years ago.
“Jeff has done a terrific job in this market for close to 20 years,” praised Williams.