Over Russ Brandon’s 20-year tenure with the Buffalo Bills, the team built extensive partnerships with local companies. They include an official bank, automotive dealer and Mediterranean restaurant. The companies receive extensive publicity by linking their brands to the team, and the Bills gain a crucial source of revenue.
On May 1, however, Brandon abruptly resigned as president of both the Bills and the Sabres, following an internal investigation into his workplace conduct. It was an unceremonious fall from grace for the high-profile, well-connected executive.
“I think Russ was a key figure in retaining the Buffalo Bills organization for Western New York,” said Colleen DiPirro, former president and CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, who has known Brandon personally and professionally for years. “And to making them a competitive team from a marketing and ticket sales standpoint, against much larger markets. And he added a level of dynamics to the team that kept pace with the NFL vision and mission.”
Their corporate partners say they plan to stay with the teams.
Brandon’s departure leaves a void, local business leaders said, but they are confident that Kim Pegula – the new president of the teams – and others in the Bills and Sabres organizations can fill it.
“I don’t think Russ was doing those by himself,” said Larry Schreiber, co-owner of the Northtown Automotive Group. “I do think that, even in his absence, there’s a good team he has formed and left behind that will be able to carry the ball.”
Kim and Terry Pegula, who own the Bills and Sabres, say nothing will change as the organization moves on without Brandon.
“Our relationships with our corporate partners have never been stronger,” said Kim Pegula, president and CEO of Pegula Sports Entertainment, the umbrella organization for the Bills and Sabres, in a statement to The Buffalo News. “Everything we do at PSE is a full team effort. And I am eager to work even closer with our executive staff and business development team to continue to expand the relationships we have involving the Bills, Sabres and every entity under our umbrella.”
Brandon worked for the Bills for two decades, rising from the marketing department to the president’s office, and he had a hand in most of the team’s significant off-the-field decisions over that time.
Founding owner Ralph Wilson Jr. named him vice president of business operations in 2006 and chief operating officer in 2008. He briefly added the role of general manager, replacing Marv Levy, in 2009. He became chief executive officer in 2010.
After the Pegulas started to consolidate the teams’ operations in recent years, Brandon added the post of Sabres president in 2015.
Brandon’s supporters say he oversaw improvements to New Era Field, expanded the Bills’ reach to Ontario and Rochester, and stabilized the team during the transition period after Wilson’s death and before its sale to the Pegulas in 2014.
“Nobody was more dedicated to the Buffalo Bills organization than Russ Brandon,” DiPirro said.
Supporters say Brandon found new ways to raise revenue in one of the National Football League’s smallest markets, though they weren’t always popular with fans. For example, he guided the move of the Bills’ training camp from SUNY Fredonia State to his alma mater of St. John Fisher College, outside Rochester. And he oversaw the shift of one Bills home game per season from Orchard Park to Toronto, an experiment that was successful financially but not on the field.
“The Toronto proposition may have had some negativity in the Western New York community. I thought it was a very creative, outside-the-box thought on how to expand the fan base,” Northtown’s Schreiber said.
In fact, business leaders marveled at Brandon’s ability to keep fans buying tickets and to keep businesses tied to the Bills during a period when the team couldn’t sell a winning product.
“He was able to tap into the culture around Buffalo, the passion for the team, and able to keep it sustainable from a marketing standpoint,” said Robert Clark, managing director of retail operations for Dunn Tire, the official tire dealer of the Bills. “I think he did a really nice job even though the product on the field or on the ice wasn’t always there to support the kind of efforts that he did.”
Northtown is the official car dealer of the Bills, and Schreiber said he has known Brandon since the Bills executive came to town about 20 years ago. Schreiber said the Bills under Brandon shifted away from partnerships with large, national companies and instead focused on building ties to local companies.
Business executives said Brandon and other Bills officials understood the economics of the region and New York state, and balanced the team’s needs against the realities of the Buffalo Niagara market.
With Brandon’s resignation from the Bills, he automatically vacates his seat on the Buffalo Niagara Partnership board of directors. Partnership spokesman Grant Loomis said this is standard procedure for the organization, no matter the reason for the departure. Brandon had served on the board from 2005 to 2012 and starting again in 2015.
Observers say Brandon’s departure is unlikely to affect major developments underway for the Bills, the Sabres and Pegula Sports and Entertainment.
Besides the renovations at KeyBank Center and a potential new football stadium, the Pegulas spent more than $200 million to construct HarborCenter, and are now spending $13 million to transform the former Hi-Temp Fabrication Building at 79 Perry St., next to KeyBank Center, into the mixed-use John Labatt House.
The news of Brandon’s ouster may generate some short-term bad publicity for the Bills and Sabres but it is not a long-term problem for the teams and their relationships in the local business community, said Stephen W. Bell, director of reputation management for Mower, the Buffalo marketing and public relations agency.
“Brandon wasn’t the brand. The Bills and Sabres are, followed by the Pegulas,” Bell said.
The key for the Bills and Sabres is whether the public perceives that the teams properly investigated any misconduct and swiftly addressed it, said Charles Lindsey, an associate professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo. If it appears that any problems are not limited to one employee, and instead are systemic within the organization, or if the public believes the teams mishandled the situation, that could be damaging to the teams’ images, he said.
“That type of dysfunction can blow back on the firm and the brand,” Lindsey said.
News Business Reporter Jonathan D. Epstein contributed to this report.