Kim Pegula doesn’t know whether the Buffalo Bills will begin the regular season Sept. 13 as advertised or precisely how the NFL will ensure the health and safety of its players and fans this season, even as the league prepares to release its 2020 schedule Thursday night.
How could she?
The coronavirus pandemic has created a fluid situation for everyone. And while the NFL has managed to pivot as necessary to adhere to its offseason schedule – as it pertains to free agency and the virtual draft – those aspects of the sport didn’t require large gatherings.
Playing the games, even without fans in the stadium, is another matter.
Pegula, the co-owner and president of the Bills and Buffalo Sabres, along with two top executives – Andy Major, the Bills’ vice president of operations and guest experience, and Mark Preisler, the executive vice president of media and content for Pegula Sports and Entertainment – spoke to The Buffalo News in a Zoom video conference call Wednesday about the uncertainty surrounding the organization, the start of football season and potential resumption of the NHL season.
Pegula said the health and safety of players, fans, and team and stadium employees remain the priority, and while Bills players continue to work remotely to learn the playbook and get in shape, much remains to be determined about when they’ll be able to gather for training camp, the necessary timeline to ensure the season begins as scheduled, testing and other risk mitigation efforts, and whether it’s reasonable to allow or expect fans to attend games, given what we know today.
The conversation came before an NFL memo Wednesday that outlined a phased reopening of team facilities no sooner than May 15, which requires permission from local and state government officials. Protocols include masks for team employees, daily screenings and temperature checks. Each team must appoint an infection control officer, as well. The memo also urged teams not to speculate on potential contingency plans for the season.
But tickets are on sale. They are available by calling the Bills' ticket office or visiting Ticketmaster.com after the schedule is released.
The Bills said they will offer full refunds or credits on tickets purchased directly from the team for any game canceled or played with fan restrictions.
Single-game tickets for canceled events purchased through NFL licensed channels, including Ticketmaster, SeatGeek and Stubhub will be refunded either automatically (in the case of Ticketmaster) or by request within 30 days of cancellation for all primary and secondary sales in New York State.
The session with The News served as an opportunity for Pegula and the organization’s top decision makers to address concerns about the upcoming season and share their current thought process, with the caveat that the situation can change.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Buffalo News: It’s understood that in many respects you’re at the mercy of the NFL and state governments and public health officials and ultimately the virus. But what are you doing to ensure the health and safety of players, employees and fans this season?
Kim Pegula: There are so many issues and scenarios that we are planning for, because we want to be ready. First and foremost, we are looking at things internally. So what about our staff? What about the health and wellness of the people that work at the Buffalo Bills, and the players and the coaches and people locally in our community? And so we've put together an internal task force across all our properties.
We’ve got legal on there, we’ve got HR on there, we've got representatives from the Sabres, PSE, from the Bills, and Andy is part of this task force that is going through all the information about the pandemic, whether it's government information, local information, things we're doing across all our properties.
Andy is also putting together a "resumption of work" task force that is addressing the individual employee needs of when we are able to come back and what that might look like. Then we’ll start expanding out into the whole fan and game scenarios.
Andy Major: We're dealing with everything from cleaning and sanitizing and temperature checking, testing of employees, working very closely with Erie County, with New York State, the government regulations and the mandates to make sure we're in concert with what those are, and what they might be with a Phase 1, 2, 3, 4 scenario. But then also working closely with the NFL and NHL to find out what they are thinking.
We're reviewing every possible scenario. It does become quite laborious, and we're all working to put together the plan. And every day it changes. We talk every single day at 12 noon, the group right on this call. It's really general information gathering and sharing, but we do have a playbook that is changing basically every day as we get closer to the potential return.
Mark Preisler: We recently sent out a survey to all our employees on how they feel about coming back, how they feel about working in the office again, what will make them more comfortable, what’s going to make them uncomfortable. And we're going to come back slowly, to make sure our employees feel comfortable, make sure the messaging is right and that they're safe. It's not going to be just flipping a switch and saying, "All right, Monday, see you at the office at 9."
BN: How will you know when it’s safe for players, who will have to travel from all over the country, to gather and play a contact sport? Will they need to be quarantined?
Pegula: We can figure out a way to get our players back in the building and be safe by doing it slowly and with guidance from the league, the CDC and government officials. And then internally, it's taking it slow, so that there’s no setbacks. ... I think that's the only way that we can really get us back, over time, into having a game and having fans.
And if we can get a vaccine. I wish I had those skills. I don’t. But this country has been able to do so many amazing things. I can't imagine that we can't figure out, from a medical standpoint, a vaccine. But there's a lot of things we can do in the meantime. We're just going to do it slowly, and we're just going to do it with a lot of guidance.
BN: By what date do players need to gather for training camp to ensure the season begins on time? And when do you need to make that decision?
Pegula: I’m asking the same questions. The league obviously wants to have a season, for sure. And I think they are, like everybody else, trying to stay flexible and not put limits, at least right now, on things like timing and the seasons starting, because we all may have to work differently. We may all have to do things in the short term, make some exceptions, whether it's virtual workouts like we're doing now. No one wants to quite put a timeline on it because we all want to be flexible, because we all want to have a season in some shape or form. And I think that's the priority.
BN: Sure, but everybody can’t just fly in and then play a game the next day, right? There has to be some type of timeline?
Pegula: I know for sure that both leagues, hockey and football and even lacrosse, any athlete, and aside from Covid, the health and safety of the players is the top priority, making sure that they have ample time to prepare to get acclimated, to be conditioned, because it doesn't help anybody if we push them back and then all of a sudden they're injured and they're out for the season. So I know both leagues are really concerned about that, as well as the players, as well as all the clubs. It’s definitely a priority.
Major: There really is no magic wand or answer right now. We're all trying to figure out where we're going to be in a few weeks or a few months.
BN: Does it seem reasonable to expect the season to begin, whenever it begins, without fans in the stands, and then slowly phase fans back in to encourage social distancing?
Pegula: We're all competitive and we're competing with other clubs across the whole country. So I think that's reasonable if we say, "What are the guidelines? How do we keep our fans safe? How do we keep our players safe? And then how do we maintain a competitive equality across all the clubs?" It’s safe to say that's one of the options that we certainly are looking at. And if that's the way we have to go, we'll be ready.
Preisler: Even if they say, "You can have everybody in the stands that you want," the other part is how many fans are going to come? How many will be comfortable coming, mask or no mask, to just immediately get back out into huge group settings? That's another part we have to weigh out when we look at everything.
BN: How would you justify testing all of your players and stadium personnel as frequently as you would need to ensure their safety, if there are people in the community who need and can't get tests?
Preisler: You're right. There could be a perception problem if there are not enough tests around to help the people that need them the most, just so football or sports can be played. But I think it's a much deeper conversation than us. You have to involve the government, the governor's office, the county health department. It’s a much bigger discussion than for this group. But the optics are on everybody's mind, to the whole thing. And I think everyone from the league on down will be prudent about how this gets rolled out to ensure the safety of everybody else around. The safety of everybody comes first. The games come second.
Pegula: There are people that are in dire need and people that are suffering a lot more than we are right now sitting on this call. And we have to be sensitive to that. And I think all the leagues, I think they are.
BN: What are the contingencies in place for the schedule if the football season cannot begin on time? Do you push everything back and play a delayed 16-game schedule? Do you take the first month of games and move those to the back end? Do you simply play fewer games?
Pegula: There hasn't been discussion as it relates to the league and the club, because I think it's just too soon for anything definitive, but I know they are working on those types of scenarios.
BN: How likely is it that the season kicks off as scheduled? Do you think there is a greater chance it’s delayed or shortened?
Pegula: Anything could happen. I don't know. It changes every day. Right now, I'm being optimistic. The schedule coming out, that's a great thing. I think it gives us something that we can at least work on going forward, even though we have to do other scenarios around it. But it gives us a path forward, which I think is really, really good. And I can't speculate. I really can't, but if the league is confident and wanting to put this schedule out, then I'm going to go with that.
BN: What’s the likelihood that the Sabres will be able to finish the season? And at what point do you need to start looking toward next season?
Pegula: We are working on providing the league as much information as we can about when we can open up and if we can help the league out in any way to finish the games. The commissioner has come out and said we can delay this season, if we need to. We’re just waiting on them to decide what that trigger date is. I don't know what it is.
But knowing that we still have a season to finish does add another layer of complexity, because right now we would normally and we are planning for next season, but then we kind of have this other partial season still left to play. It's been complex, but it's doable. And we'll have to see where it goes from here.
BN: What’s the primary message you want to get across to Bills fans and players as the schedule is being released, given that we don't how this is going to play out?
Major: Coach McDermott always talks about "Trust the process." This is a process. This is an amazing process. And there's no right or wrong answers right now. We're trying to gather all the right info, talk to everybody on the staff, the team, the players, the coaches and everybody on this call. Everybody that we meet with every day has something to say about this situation.
I would just say, "Buffalo Strong," to be a little cheesy about it, but I think that's really the message.
Pegula: There are two organizational focuses that we always talk about – focusing on the fan and winning championships. And I think that if anything, those two priorities as an organization, whether it’s hockey, whether it’s football, lacrosse, we’re still doing that. Those are our goals and that’s something that we are working on, whether it’s from home, whether it’s from a different state. That hasn’t changed. It may look differently a month from now, six months from now. But we’re focusing on our fans, whether that’s engagement, whether that’s safety. And winning championships. Those are our goals and that hasn’t stopped.