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Brandon: Sabres-Bills deal with MSG provides content-hungry fans 'everything they were looking for'

Professional sports leagues continue to move toward new and lucrative revenue streams from digital media content.

They aren't walking there. They are sprinting.

And Buffalo's major sports franchises are right at the front of the pack.

The recent 10-plus-year agreement that Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which runs the Bills and Sabres, reached with Madison Square Garden Network was a major step toward satisfying ever-growing demands for content from both teams.

All sorts of content received in a variety of ways.

Current and former executives from the NFL and NHL have reached out to Bills and Sabres officials to offer props for obtaining rights fees of about $20 million annually from their own combined channel, MSG Western New York, without investing in the costly infrastructure required to create their own regional sports network.

"There was a lot of speculation that we were going to build our own regional sports network," Bills and Sabres Managing Partner and President Russ Brandon said during a recent interview at his office at PSE. "But this partnership with MSG provides us everything that our fans really were looking for when it comes to consumption of content."

What fans are looking for can be summed up in a single word: More.

That was one of the mandates Mark Preisler and Marc Honan, as representatives of the Bills' and Sabres' media interests, took into negotiations with MSG president and chief executive officer Andrea Greenberg and her staff.

"It was a long negotiation," Brandon said. "From Day One, there was a partnership element to it that just felt right to everyone. And we were able to work through a lot of elements to get to where we are today."

Besides Sabres games, there will be daily Bills and Sabres shows year-round on MSG WNY. Although Bills games are part of the NFL's agreement on behalf of all 32 teams with the major television networks, they generate their own content distributed regionally. They have long-term plans of expanding the programming they had been providing Channel 7 (including preseason games) and will now be moving to MSG WNY.

"From our standpoint, it really gives us great, broad content distribution amongst our properties," Brandon said. "It will have a very Western New York feel to it. We're going to re-appropriate some programming with some simulcasting (such as the "John Murphy Show" on the Bills that will air from noon to 3 p.m. on WGR 550 beginning with the start of training camp later this month) that I think will be very appealing to our fan base.

"The most important thing is that this will be very appealing to our fan base in our entire region -- (Buffalo) and Rochester and the Southern Tier. It's a very broad package."

Reaching the audience entails a different way of thinking for sports leagues and their teams than simply putting games and shoulder programming on TV and radio. As with everyone else in their space, the Bills and Sabres are operating with a strategy that increasingly pushes content to smart phones and tablets.

With a greater emphasis on expanding to a global market, the NFL continues down the road of broadcasting games via online streaming, such as last season's Bills-Jaguars clash in London that was only seen on television in the Buffalo and Jacksonville markets but on Yahoo.com everywhere else. Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill recently said it's only a matter of time before an online distributor becomes a major media partner of the NFL. The traditional methods of games being delivered by major television and cable networks, as well as satellite distributor DirecTV, will be replaced by video providers such as Amazon, NetFlix, and YouTube.

One day soon, Bidwill predicts, these online entities are going to outbid NBC, CBS, FOX and ESPN for the right to carry games.

"What we need to do is do a great job of listening to our fans about how they want to consume NFL content," Bidwill told Pro Football Talk. "Our fans are switching to digital, they’re switching to handheld and mobile devices, and we want to respond to that.”

One way the Cardinals are responding is through a collaboration with Amazon Prime and NFL Films to produce an inside look at the team in a video series called "All or Nothing." The documentary, created as a digital alternative to the popular HBO inside-training-camp series "Hard Knocks," is available in an unfiltered version, which includes expletives; a PG version, and a Spanish-language version.

The primary motivation, according to Bidwill, is to attract fans from outside Arizona.

The Bills-Sabres-MSG deal has the same sort of thinking behind it.

"I think everyone realizes what the upside is," Brandon said. "In (the PSE offices), we have a social media hub and a massive creative team. We're able, through all of our assets, to be very creative in that space, something that we feel we're pretty good at as a company.

"And then, in turn, (PSE executive vice president of business development) Bruce Popko and his staff get to sell it."

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