Sabre rattling: Buffalo wary of Hamilton team

The Buffalo Sabres in their history have twice been edged out of a championship by American clubs, but the possibility of a new Ontario club could be their greatest NHL challenge.

Would a Hamilton club take a big cut from Buffalo's Ontario fan base?

The Buffalo Sabres in their history have twice been edged out of a championship by American clubs, but the possibility of a new Ontario club could be their greatest NHL challenge.

Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie will find out as early as June 9 if he can move the struggling Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton, but regardless of that outcome, the league may have to one day confront the possibility of another option for southern Ontario hockey fans due to demand and population growth.

The Sabres have enjoyed a long history with fans in the Niagara region and as far away as Hamilton who have found traffic and distance a disincentive to attending dozens of games per season in Toronto.

Hamilton falls within the NHL's territorial rights radius of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that financial juggernaut could probably withstand the incursion of another team a lot better than the small-market Sabres, who as recently as 2003 were bankrupt.

Buffalo sports fans are already concerned about the uncertain future of the NFL's Bills beyond the ownership of 90-year-old Ralph Wilson, and have watched as that team has moved to schedule several games in Toronto.

Host Mike Schopp of WGR Sports Radio in Buffalo said a challenge to the Sabres is something the city's sports fans don't want to fully confront yet.

"Frankly, with the Bills seeming to be in peril like they are to a lot of people, the Sabres story is on the backburner," said Schopp. "We've got enough to worry about the football team, to obsess about whether the hockey team is in trouble because of the relocation of a franchise that hasn't happened yet,"

Politicians are rarely reticent to confront such an opportunity, though, and New York state senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand recently released a statement opposing the relocation of the Coyotes.

"Locating another team so close to the Sabres would unfairly penalize the franchise and their loyal fans in western New York, in Rochester and in southern Ontario, and it must not be allowed to happen," the statement read.

The affable Schumer has been vigilant on the issue of free trade over the years, but predictably didn't put pen to paper when it was time to build a casino in western New York within a similar radius of the Niagara Falls, Ont., casino that has been drawing Americans for over a decade.

Territorial rights

The Sabres, like most pro sports teams, are emboldened and protected by the concept of territorial rights. The NHL's constitution states "each member shall have exclusive territorial rights in the city in which it is located and within 50 miles [80 kilometres] of that city's corporate limits."

Leagues try to set up territorial rights in order to maximize each team's ability to garner fans, media attention and advertising dollars.

Hamilton is 41 miles (66 kilometres) from the Buffalo club, according to the league. Should Balsillie somehow be successful, he would likely have to compensate both the Maple Leafs and Sabres, as has happened in previous examples of NHL franchises moving too close for comfort to other clubs.

Balsillie has argued that there are so many Ontario towns and cities within a reasonable distance to Hamilton that the franchise wouldn't prevent Buffalo from prospering.

"There’s no question the teams will do very, very well and continue to do very well," Balsillie told ESPN Radio last week. "I don’t think that’s of a principal concern in terms of their gate."

The Sabres turned around their fortunes after the bankruptcy scare, with owner Thomas Golisano and managing partner Larry Quinn helping to provide stability off the ice after the era of John Rigas, who ultimately went to prison on fraud charges.

Quinn, when asked in the past about the possibility of holding exhibition games for the Sabres in Hamilton, stated that the Canadian city is not part of Buffalo's market.

Efforts to reach Quinn for comment on this story were unsuccessful. He recently told the Globe and Mail that 20 to 25 per cent of the team's fan base is Canadian, with 10 to 15 per cent season-ticket holders.

The difference between those two figures is where the challenge would lie for the Sabres with respect to their Ontario fans, according to Craig Hyatt of the sport management program at Brock University in nearby St. Catharines, who has studied fan loyalty.

"It's realistic to expect more casual fans to potentially turn towards Hamilton, especially if they start winning," said Hyatt.

There would have to be several factors aside from cost and distance to change the habits of adult season ticket holders who've been going to Sabres games for years or decades and forged their identity with the team. The HSBC Arena in Buffalo is still a lot easier to get to than Hamilton's rink for residents of Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Welland and parts of St. Catharines.

While new passport regulations add a wrinkle, the effect on Canadian residents in the habit of crossing the border is probably fairly minimal, with children under 15 not required to have passports.

But it's the potential young fans who would pose the biggest challenge for the Sabres. Kids generally love shiny, new things and the ability to cheer for the most local team. Hyatt suspects the adverse impact for Buffalo wouldn't necessarily be immediate, but would increase over time.

"Twenty-five years from now you're not going to have too many kids in Hamilton/Niagara who have their first loyalty at age five, six, seven, eight  to the Sabres … [instead] it will be to the most obvious local option," said Hyatt.

Hyatt thinks that process has already begun for many in Niagara, because Sabres games are no longer accessible for Canadians on an over-the-air U.S. network.

A Hamilton franchise and the city itself could also add to the challenge for the Sabres by adding family-friendly amenities at and around Copps Coliseum. Anyone who's been to a game in Buffalo can attest that the area surrounding HSBC is lacking in that regard.

Uncertain future

The Sabres are still reaping the benefits at the gate from reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2007. But the future remains unclear due to the recession and two straight seasons without a playoff berth.

Buffalo slipped out of the top 10 in 2009 in total attendance in the NHL, to 12th, after finishing second behind Montreal the previous year.

The two home games in 2009 that did not feature 100 per cent attendance were not when the likes of the Atlanta Thrashers or Nashville Predators visited, but rather games featuring the popular Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.

Most Sabres fans blame the new platinum pricing scheme for the handful of games involving the Leafs and Canadiens, a reach too far into the wallets of fans.

While territorial rights of pro leagues have been subject to restraint of trade challenges before, the current case is exceptional partly because it involves an international border.

Some who have studied territorial rights argue that they can at times be counterproductive to a league, since they might block what could be profitable teams near existing franchises and centres of interest in favour of arbitrary geographical disparity.

They are also somewhat arbitrary distances.

A Hamilton team could be located 52 miles from Buffalo, outside of the zone, and still draw some fans from southern Ontario. Conversely, the fact that Copps Coliseum isn't located in the north part of Hamilton isn't likely to be deterrent enough for avid hockey fans from areas like London, Kitchener, Waterloo, Guelph, or Milton (the latter one of the fastest-growing communities in Canada).

All of those nearby cities have experienced population growth in the past decade, which leads to the second issue with territorial rights. As Michael F. Danielson pointed out in Home Team: Professional Sports and the American Metropolis, the territorial distance favoured by pro leagues has remained relatively static, ranging from 50 to 75 miles.

But job losses, population trends and interest in a particular sport are not static, and cities don't all enter a league at the same point in time.

Buffalo had about 463,000 people in the city proper when granted a franchise in 1970. The total has dipped to under 300,000, with minimal growth in the remainder of Erie County.

The NHL has argued that it can keep a team wherever it likes in the interest of stability. It's a stance counter to most businesses, which try to evolve with market forces.

Schopp is confident that with the growth of hockey in western New York — with local product Patrick Kane selected first overall in the draft two years ago — support for the sport and the Sabres isn't going to flag too much. He's trying to find the silver lining and believes a Hamilton team could enhance Buffalo as a buzzworthy NHL city as rivalries flourish in the northeast with Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa and a potential new club.

"I'd hope that the Sabres looked at this not so much as a threat, and I'd hope that the fans would, too," he said. "I'm sick of being scared about our sports teams, it's not supposed to be like this."

Since the Balsillie play for the Coyotes came to light, there has been much written and broadcast arguing that a second franchise in Hamilton or Toronto would be a big success.

But nothing's guaranteed. The Los Angeles Clippers have long been woeful, the recent history of the New York Islanders is depressing, and the same metropolitan area — Minneapolis-St. Paul — has had two quite different NHL experiences.

"How a team is run and how it's managed and how it's marketed is just as important as whether or not the people who might support it are there," said Hyatt.

There's no doubt the Sabres would have to work a lot harder to draw fans from southern Ontario whose only other option has traditionally been Toronto.

But isn't that what competition is about?