Most of Russ Brandon’s attention is available on this late June afternoon in his office at Pegula Sports and Entertainment. These days, that’s rare. The Buffalo Bills just wrapped up minicamp, so things should be fairly quiet at One Bills Drive for about a month. But the NHL Draft is around the corner, followed by NHL free agency. The Buffalo Sabres will be making big moves before they, too, dim the lights through the balance of July and into August. But then, boom. Bills training camp opens and, before you know it, the NFL is full tilt again.
So it’s hard to blame Brandon for taking those occasional peeks at the computer screen to his right. The Outlook calendar, which pretty much rules his life, is open and a new appointment could be popping up at any moment. As president of the Bills, Sabres, the AHL’s Rochester Americans, and the hotel, restaurant and music entities that fall under the PSE umbrella, there’s always a meeting to attend, a text or email to send, another meeting, a call to return, another meeting, a plane to catch, another meeting … and another … and another.
“Twenty-three this week,” Brandon says, counting up all of the blue boxes on his calendar highlighting the day and time of each. Four are over dinner. The rest are spread out at One Bills Drive, First Niagara Center, HarborCenter and PSE. In less than an hour, he’s due at a major gathering of PSE executives in the conference room next door.
Brandon’s office, like the others on the second floor of the Fairmont Creamery Building, is all about transparency, with a glass wall and door in front. It’s decorated the way you’d expect the working digs of the man overseeing diverse interests to be decorated. On the wall behind Brandon are giant action photos of the most transformative young stars on the Bills (Sammy Watkins) and Sabres (Jack Eichel). On the wall to his left hangs a copy of a framed gold record of Kelsea Ballerini, a country music recording artist on PSE’s Black River Entertainment label. Sitting in the middle of the shelves to his right are a pair of Bills helmets, one with the standing Buffalo and the other with the current logo, and a black hockey helmet.
This is one of the few weeks out of the year the 49-year-old husband and father of two sons and a daughter doesn’t have to travel.
“I can definitely count them on my hand,” he says of his in-town days, flashing a sheepish grin. “Not a lot of sand gets under the shoes nowadays.”
It has been this way since July 27, 2015. That was when Brandon went from being in charge of the business operation of only one team, the Bills, to having his plate stacked higher than that of any sports executive in the history of Western New York – and throughout most of the country for that matter.
“When the opportunity was presented to me, I didn’t hesitate and I knew I’d really enjoy it,” Brandon says. “But I didn’t know how much I would love it.”
“One year?” says Kim Pegula, PSE’s president and CEO. “It feels like it’s been like 20.”
By all accounts, the consolidation of the presidency is working out as well as anticipated, even if it can be professionally and personally taxing.
Did Brandon – who after graduating from St. John Fisher College in 1989 rose swiftly through the sports-marketing ranks from minor-league baseball with the Rochester Red Wings to Major League Baseball with the Florida Marlins to the Bills – truly know what he was getting into?
“Yes and no,” he says. “You think you have a pretty good plan as I went into it. I’ve altered that a few times, just with office days and travel and strategically planning my schedule, which I didn’t realize at the time was much easier with just the Bills. But we talk about working in team sports and if you’re in this role that I happen to be in, you’d better live it every day – the true definition of team.”
Asked if there is any concern the job is too large for one person, Kim says, “Sure, there is always a concern. However, he is surrounded by many talented people who are there to support him and he knows he can count on any of them to help lift if needed. Although the teams are different sports, the businesses have a lot of similarities that have helped Russ to absorb the additional responsibilities.”
After less than a full season of owning NFL and NHL teams, Kim and her husband, Terry, recognized the need for a point person to help keep an eye on both franchises as well as on their other entertainment and tourism properties. They found they were “being stretched thin” trying to do that themselves.
They wanted to consolidate their time as hands-on owners without sacrificing too much direct involvement, and determined that talking with one president rather than two or more would make the process more efficient. They also wanted staff members from both teams to “learn from each other,” and saw Brandon as the ideal conduit.
“Russ’s role is to represent both teams in the community as well as lead the business operations on a day-to-day basis, with the understanding that he keeps us informed as needed,” Kim says. “Russ’s experience, knowledge and relationships he’s built over the years made him the right choice. We were not looking to start over but found in Russ someone who could bridge the gap between both teams and who really cared about Buffalo like we did.”
At the core, that is the essence of Brandon’s presence in Western New York, dating to when he became the Bills’ executive director of marketing and business development in 1997: He cares.
Before the Pegulas came along to buy the Bills from the estate of the late Ralph Wilson, Brandon was leading the seemingly endless charge to keep the team viable enough to remain in Western New York. The mission continued after Wilson’s passing in 2014, as the Bills were being prepared to be sold, even when Brandon’s future with the organization was uncertain with multiple bidders and the distinct possibility of a housecleaning.
Those worries are gone. Brandon and his staff have had a wildly successful run of ticket and sponsorship sales for both teams. To top it all off, Buffalo is hosting the World Juniors hockey tournament at the end of 2017 and PSE recently made a transformative, 10-plus-year deal with Madison Square Garden Network, which will pay about $20 million in annual rights fees to televise Sabres games and other media content from them and the Bills.
“Business is very healthy,” Brandon says. “We’re humming. We’re reinventing ourselves every day in how we sell our product, build our product, brand our product. There’s been a lot of change over the past year and with change, there’s speed bumps along the way. But every arrow on our business side is pointed up.
“Last year was interesting, because, within a day or two of taking on the new role, one of my first tasks was I boarded a plane with a couple of the executives here and we went out to Colorado Springs and made our pitch to deliver the World Juniors. That was the first early win for our group because World Juniors is a tremendous boost to hockey and also Western New York because the economic multiplier will be tremendous.”
Brandon agreed to sit down for a Q&A with The Buffalo News to discuss what it has been like to literally be a man for all seasons:
BN: What have you learned about yourself in the past year?
RB: “I didn’t sleep much before, so I learned I can still go on pretty limited sleep.”
BN: What’s a usual work day like?
RB: “Typically, what I try to do is go to the farthest place first. I typically will start my day in Orchard Park, because it’s farthest from” his home in “Williamsville. And it’s all programming-dependent. If we have minicamp all week at the Bills, I may be there more that week. I’m downtown more during the draft. The NFL is an early business, and I’m an early person, so I can get some things done at One Bills Drive early and then I can head to the Sabres/PSE or here and then the Sabres. I will hit all three offices on a day pretty consistently, but every week is different based on what the schedule may look like.”
BN: Is it a case of specific matters you need to address at a particular location or is it simply wanting to show your face at each location?
RB: “It’s a combination of both. I want to interact and spend time with the staff as much as possible. It’s not always a perfect world on that front. I have set meetings on Monday, set meetings on Tuesday. I know I’m at PSE on Monday afternoon for an executive-leadership team meeting. I know I’m at HarborCenter on Tuesday with a set meeting with the executives that are running their respective verticals at HarborCenter and then with (Sabres VP of Administration/General Manager of HarborCenter) Mike Gilbert. And I know I’m a little bit longer at One Bills Drive on a Wednesday, because I have my senior-management meeting there. I really try to keep my Thursdays and Fridays as flex days when it comes to all my other meetings and that may fluctuate where my location is during the day when I’m in town.”
BN: When do you have time for you?
RB: “Usually in July it’s a little quieter, so hopefully you get a little down time during that time. My time is my workout time early in the morning. That’s sort of my time where you feel like, ‘OK, this is a good time to chill out.’ But having three kids and trying to make their games and trying to hit that as well is all part of the process, too. You try to get a good balance and, like anything, you learn to delegate more. And even though I’ve always felt that, with my staff, I’ve been very collaborative over time, very transparent, you still may hold onto things a little bit more than you should. But with the new role, with the numerous properties, you learn that you’ve really got to make sure that everyone’s in the trust tree and you really lean on your talent.”
BN: How often do you feel the guilt of having to miss some of your sons’ football, basketball or baseball games, or your daughter’s softball and field hockey games, or any of her competitive dancing events?
RB: “It’s self-imposed guilt. It’s the Catholic in me. They all understand. But it’s a blessing to watch your kids play. I just try to make sure it’s quality over quantity.”
BN: Is it as simple as saying hockey is just another sport to sell, like football and baseball, or was there a learning curve with the NHL?
RB: “There were a lot of Sabres people in the executive leadership team that I have been able to lean on during my first year. But when it comes to the business, I’ve enjoyed the league aspect of it. I know a lot of people in the NHL league offices. The other team presidents and ownership have been very welcoming. And I’ve had the opportunity, because of the Combine and because of the draft (being in Buffalo) and the Board of Governors meetings, to really land on my feet quickly on that front.”
BN: It would seem that you would interact more with Kim than Terry, just because she’s more focused on the business aspects of the ownership and Terry gets more involved with the hockey and football sides. True?
RB: “Every single day, multiple, multiple times a day, Kim and I are talking about the business – the business, the brand, everything relative to what, really, I’m focused on. Terry and I talk all the time. He’s an amazing man. He’s highly, highly intelligent. He is easy to talk to, very open. I love being in his presence. I learn something from him all the time. And Kim is one of the most gracious, classy, collaborative people that I’ve ever worked with. On top of that, I’m dealing with” Bills GM “Doug” Whaley “and” Bills coach “Rex” Ryan “and” Sabres GM “Tim” Murray “and” Sabres coach “Dan” Bylsma. Terry spends a lot of time on that side as well. But part of my job is tying all that together with, not making those decisions, but making sure administratively and culturally that we’re all humming along. It’s a collaboration amongst all parties – the collaboration and the transparency and the ability to navigate positives and negatives. When you think of character, you learn about people during adverse times. And to be around guys like that with that high level of character, they don’t change. It’s consistent across the board, day in and day out.”
BN: Did any part of you say you had to prove something to Terry and Kim that you could handle the added duties?
RB: “The answer to that is simple for me. I get up every day with something to prove to myself. I know what I’m bringing every day. That’s the way I’ve always been. I’ve been that since I can remember. I’d come home from a baseball game and go, ‘Hey, I went 3 for 4’ or, ‘I went 4 for 4.’ My father would say, ‘No one really cares. It’s about what you do tomorrow.’ So that’s sort of the approach I’ve always taken. Every day I get up and I say, ‘I’ve got to prove something to myself, and hopefully that’s good enough for everyone else.’”
BN: How much does the fact both franchises have gone through long playoff droughts weigh on you in your current capacity?
RB: “Yeah, obviously, it weighs on everyone in the organization. We have such great fans and great support that you want it more for your community and the region because it’s so deserved for our fans. But I think that, with the group that we have in place, on the football side, led by Doug and Rex, on the hockey side, led by Tim and Dan, we feel very good about the people we have leading the football and the hockey programs.”
BN: A big part of your job is fan engagement. Do you worry about fans keeping the faith in their teams, knowing that the best way to do that is to win?
RB: “Well, I think the No. 1 thing is the people we have in place and the confidence that we have placed in the individuals I just mentioned. And, certainly, it’s the No. 1 focus in any organization, in our organization, is to win. That’s paramount. It’s the only thing that we think about when it comes to that side of the house. From the business side, we’re always looking to improve the fan experience. We’re always looking at cutting-edge ways to engage our fans with our product and create more content.”
BN: How do you deal with the fact there are critics who, because of your long tenure as a high-ranking executive in the organization that included those few seasons as GM, associate you with the Bills’ struggles?
RB: “Criticism is part of the job description in pro sports and I respect that part of our business. The passion of our fans is amazing and you saw that spotlighted when we secured the long-term future of the franchise. Every individual that works at One Bills Drive and PSE shares that same passion. It is why this is such a special place to work and live. In Year Two of the Pegula ownership, with Doug and Rex leading the football department, we have the right structure in place and I am excited for the future. We have both continuity and stability. In the last 16 years, we have had nine head coaches and double digit offensive and defensive coordinators, which, in my opinion, is not the formula for success.”
BN: Could you have ever have envisioned this for yourself when you were growing up in East Syracuse?
RB: “I believe in looking through the windshield, but I think it’s important that you peek in the rearview mirror and make sure that you reflect on where you’ve come from, being from East Syracuse with a mom and dad that did everything for me. My dad climbed telephone poles for New York Telephone for many years. Very middle-class upbringing. You can’t fake your way through that town. To look back at that and support from my mom and dad, and the sacrifice for me and my two brothers, it is amazing. I’m beyond blessed.”
BN: Do you think about those early professional influences?
RB: “Dan Lunetta, who is now director of minor league administration for the Detroit Tigers, gave me my first job in Rochester (while he was GM of the Red Wings in 1991 and 1992) and is someone who I owe a lot to in my career. And Dan took me with him to the Florida Marlins, and that gave me the opportunity to work with” then-Marlins president and GM “Dave Dombrowski and some extremely talented people. I look back on those first five years and had two championships – an International League championship with the Red Wings and then a World Series Trophy with the Marlins – and then I came here and went to the playoffs the first two years with” then-Bills GM “John” Butler. There was a lot of winning early in my career, and you know what it looks like and what it feels like and the culture that can be built with it. I look back very fondly and very humbly and graciously to all those people. I would never be here without them.”
BN: As much as you enjoyed the Marlins experience, you were looking for the chance to get back to the northeast, and the Bills gave you that opportunity in ’97.
RB: “Little did I know at the time what I was walking into was selling the suites and club seats to activate the state money for the renovation in ’99 for the new club seats and the 76 new suites. If I really knew what I was getting into, I might have hesitated. That was a massive, massive undertaking. The Bills were starting, but weren’t there yet, on transitioning to what the sports-marketing business model should look like at that time. I was very fortunate to come from a very sophisticated organization under Wayne Huizenga with the Marlins, because if you think about it, this is very similar at Pegula Sports and Entertainment to that then, because Wayne owned the Dolphins, the Marlins, the Panthers, Sports Channel Florida, stadium. We were very uniquely built to run our properties, so that gave me an opportunity to impart some things that we learned down there when we came here and build another model.”
BN: You always had your sights set on running a team, right?
RB: “The goal was to be a team president. John Butler had mentored me in that way, told me that’s where I was heading, he felt. John would give me pop quizzes on the CBA. It was like being in school. Like, he’d call me down and give me 10 questions on the CBA. He said, ‘You need to make sure you’re on top of this.’ He’d call you down and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to watch film and you’re going to call out every defensive front. You need to know what a scout’s life is like and you need to go on the road with some of our scouts. I’m taking you out with me and to learn that side of the business.’ I wasn’t going to ever be a scout, but I damn sure made sure I respected and knew every single thing that they went through. And I have such great appreciation for that side of the business. And that was all part of, really, looking back at it, John’s mentorship to me because he used to say to me all the time, ‘You will be a team president.’”
BN: But once you landed that job in 2013, how worried were you that you might lose it after the team was sold?
RB: “My mindset was always control what you can control. We were very confident, as a group, that we had built a business model that was sustainable in Western New York to put the team in position to be sold and kept in Western New York. Mission accomplished. On a personal front, I wasn’t worried about myself, because I knew that there’d be opportunities if it wasn’t here. But it meant more to me that the team was here for our community than what happened to me. But my goal was very simple. I always wanted to be here and to stay here. This is my home and it means more here. I’m beyond blessed to have that World Series ring and a Governor’s Cup ring (for the Red Wings’ IL crown), but to have one with Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills on it would mean more to me than anything.”