Over the past few years I have gotten the distinct impression that Buffalo had begun to trend away from being a football first town.
For me, everything came to a head last summer after the Bills had polished off that dismal season with the third overall pick at the draft. They followed that with an uneventful offseason that led few to have any hope for the team going into the 2011 season. Meanwhile, the Sabres were flying high under their new owner who gives piles of money to just about everyone he encounters.
With Terry Pegula unleashing a free agent spending spree, the Sabres were expected to reach new heights in the postseason. The exact opposite was true of the Bills; they were expected to be below average and struggle to escape the AFC East basement.
Looking at each team as the football and hockey season began last year, it seemed like a strong year from the Sabres and another poor showing for the Bills would all but complete the transformation. However, Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Bills on that unexpected winning streak and had them sniffing for a playoff position before tailing off. I saw that as a saving grace for how the Bills were viewed by most Buffalo sports fans. This offseason has all but shored up any doubts fans may have had.
Does Pegula’s wheeling have anything to do with the recent approach the Bills have taken? I’m sure it’s possible, but it would be next to impossible to prove. What I think is plausible is the fact that the shift in fandom throughout Buffalo has people looking at each team differently.
Tracing back to the NHL lockout, the Sabres returned with a competitive team that was fun to watch. They experienced a ton of success, gained plenty of new (bandwagon) fans and had captivated an audience that was starving for some sort of success. While the Sabres have regressed to the mean in recent seasons, Terry Pegula represents something Buffalo has never had before; an owner who is only motivated by winning.
During that same period, the Bills continued to dwindle, floating around .500 without ever making much headway. That was a trend that continued before the debacle that was 2010. A perennially bad team combined with a public opinion that nothing much was being done to right the ship is likely what pulled fans away from the Bills.
Since 2012-13 is a big question mark for both teams, it would be hard to speculate what might happen in the next 12 months. The Bills are likely winning the offseason based on their draft, signing of Mario Williams and sudden relevance with national media.
The #BillsMafia and ridiculous number of Sabres blogs show that each team and fanbase has a significant presence with social media. The die hards from each camp are really who stand out to me and I see a major difference between both camps.
No matter what sport you’re talking about, there will be plenty of fools who think that the Sabres can trade for Sidney Crosby, or that the Bills need to find a way to incorporate more Wildcat plays. Ignorant sports fans lurk among us and there is typically no remedy.
In recent years I have noticed a relative laxness from Bills fans in terms of what the team is trying to accomplish with personnel moves. Perhaps it is because populating a team with undrafted free agents is sort of like doing an Arena Football fantasy draft. Perhaps Bills fans are content with wobbly pops and a Sunday out of the house, I’m not sure. On the whole, however, I feel that Bills fans are far less reactionary when it comes to moves the Bills choose to make. The obvious exceptions are the major moves (Mario Williams, T.O.) which resonate on a national level.
Sabres fans, on the other hand can be completely irrational dimwits most of the time. For every person who will watch the game and form balanced opinions, there are guys who think Ryan Miller needs to shutout every team and that faceoffs are a trivial statistic that has no bearing on the game.
The sport of hockey is far different from football. There are a number of different sources that prospects come from and it is nearly identical to baseball in the way that players are developed. Unlike football, where you have a handful of draft picks which either make your roster or don’t, hockey franchises are a layered organization with a core group of 23 players plus an additional pool of minor league plug ins and prospects that play in leagues all over the world.
With such high player turnover and more exposure to the success and failure of said players, there is probably a good explanation for why Sabres fans are quick to jump on any sort of potential trade or signing. Whether or not they have put any though into their Ryan Miller for Rick Nash trade is a different story.
The NHL should be applauded for how they embraced the internet and social media. They were a true forerunner when it came to using the internet for news and fan access. Now every league is basically on the same level, but the fan bases aren’t.
I think the Bills Mafia is probably one of the most impressive things I have ever encountered. However, there are all of eight Bills blogs floating around the internet while there are about 856 Sabres blogs. I would attribute that to the young fan base the Bills lost and the Sabres gained in the mid-2000s.
The die hards for each team remained throughout each team’s struggles and success, but the Sabres turnaround in 2005-06 and 06-07 really captivated a young, tech-savvy audience. Add that to the countless hockey resources on the internet and you have a fan base that operates on an entirely different level than one made up of guys who can make grills out of can engines, for example.
The NFL still gets far more play than the NHL on just about every level. But when I look at Sabres and Bills fans, there is a massive disconnect for me. I see Sabres fans salivating over any and all announcements made by the team as compared to Bills fans. Perhaps the teams play a role here. The Sabres find a number of ways to get their fans in the area to watch hockey and that adds to the reach they get from blogs and other sources. Perhaps if the Bills encouraged blogs to come to the press box they would see a similar uptick. Not to mention it would probably piss off Jerry Sullivan, so that’s cool.
I think the biggest difference that you see between the Bills and Sabres are the way the fans act. There are plenty of partiers throughout FNC on any given night. However, with 41 home games – many on weeknights – it is a little tougher to get sloshed before heading in to watch the game. The constant action you have in hockey also forces a bit more attention to be paid if you truly plan on watching the game. Compare that to football where there is a lot of down time and you may have an answer to why Bills fans consume more adult beverages on game days.
In addition, Bills games are an event. You get there early, drink, go in the game and drink and then go back to your car to drink some more. Whether or not the team is any good has very little to do with that recipe for a DUI. What has almost always remained for Bills fans is the tailgate. Just getting out of the house to do some drinking is probably all some Bills fans need. Recent seasons have given them little reason to care other than they don’t need to mow the lawn while enjoying some brews and a live football game.
Sabres games, on the other hand, are an event in a whole different way. First of all, they have adopted a family first attitude with much of what they do. Regardless if you agree with that type of game presentation, that presents a far different experience for anyone in the arena. Playing in the dead of winter in an arena that has no entertainment venues surrounding it (thanks, Donn Esmonde, Tim Tielman and other obstructionist douchebags) leaves few options for drinking. Typically the party at Sabres games comes at the end of the night, rather than before the game.
I don’t know if the Sabres would ever snatch the crown from the head of the Bills for the main affection of the city. I think the Bills were toeing a very dangerous line over the past few seasons before they recommitted to winning.
The Sabres are in a position of being a power player in the NHL for a number of years to come. I think they still need a couple more seasons for the roster to be properly shaped, but they’re on their way. Because of that fact, I think it is reasonable to think that they will slowly become an annual contender on the NHL’s landscape. That is going to force the Bills to pick up their game.
The NFL’s revenue sharing puts every team on a level playing field. Because of that, the Bills will always have the opportunity to sign any free agent they want. Whether or not they’re in the running is a completely different story. The most important part is their draft strategy.
With NFL teams expecting most draft picks to fill roster spots, poor drafting can totally handicap a franchise. When I look at the Bills, I see a team willing to win, but maybe not willing to break the bank every season.
Perhaps the Bills will continue to show effort towards winning in an attempt to keep up with what the Sabres are doing under Pegula. What will interest me is how the fans react if one team trends towards an even greater level of success.