BY ANDREW KULYK
In last week’s edition of The Buffalo News, you will find an excellent feature on the NBA Buffalo Braves, penned by sports journalist Bucky Gleason. It offers a fascinating instrospective on the rise and fall of Buffalo’s failed NBA franchise and the circumstances that led to its demise. Gleason should be lauded for the hard work he did in getting all the people in the article to agree to an interview and talk so frankly on what went down behind the scenes, to lead to the franchise’s demise and its ultimate relocation to San Diego in 1978.
Where the article fails, however, is its overall tone in attempting to portray Braves owner Paul Snyder as some benevolent and all caring steward of the game and the franchise, when in fact it was greed and a money grab, plain and simple, not mediocre attendance, or the lack of access to Saturday home dates, or the newest “cover story” now being put out there and asking us to swallow – that the NBA could not finalize TV schedules because of the Buffalo Braves inability to identify available open dates on the Aud’s calendar. If one is to believe the story, the league gave the Braves five years to figure it out, and once the date issue couldn’t be solved, the Braves were doomed in Buffalo.
Life imitates art. Remember the old HBO series The Sopranos? In one episode, an old high school chum of Tony Soprano runs up a huge gambling debt to the syndicate. Unable to repay the debt, Soprano and his crew descend upon the debtor’s sporting goods store, running up the store’s lines of credit, picking clean the inventory, and ridding the business of all its prized assets, to the point that the store had to shut its doors.
Or the baseball movie Major League. Cleveland Indians owner Rachel Phelps wants to make her team so bad, and so unwatchable, that the Indians will fail to meet attendance targets and then she can break her lease and relocate the team to Miami, Florida.
Put these two story lines together, and you have the tale of Paul Snyder, his two later partners – John Y. Brown and Harry Mangurian, all foils who harvested whatever could be profited from a once proud franchise and took a shit on all of Buffalo and its loyal sports fans.
Snyder is not a totally bad guy. He acquired the team late in the expansion process and really tried to make it work here. But by the time he arrived on the scene, the Buffalo Sabres, who had been awarded an NHL expansion franchise that same year, 1970, had already secured a lease with the city, and had put in place ambitious plans and a financial blueprint to expand Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium from 10,000 to almost 16,000 seats for hockey. It was an incredible engineering feat which would involve literally raising the roof of the Aud with cantilevers and adding a 5000 seat balcony, an accomplishment which was unique to Buffalo. This city pulled it off, and for the paltry cost of $8.2-million, Buffalo now had a renovated NHL and NBA ready arena. And Snyder had nothing to do with any of this.
In the News’ article, Snyder insists that had a few things gone down differently, Buffalo today could be a basketball city, and it could have been the Sabres that melted away and went elsewhere. Again this is bullshit.
The Sabres were a marketing juggernaut from the get go. With a first year capacity of 10,429, they instantly became a fan sensation and sellouts were common. Fueled in part by Canadian buyers, season tickets were snapped up. When the Sabres put those 5000 spanking new orange tickets on sale for the 1971-1972 season (at a cost of $3.50 per single game ticket!), just about all of them were committed for. The Sabres went on to almost 15 years of straight sellouts. One of the common social sensations of the 70s would be to camp out under the Thruway viaduct at the Aud’s Terrace Street entrance to get in line when Sabres single game tickets went on sale. The team only sold tickets one game at a time, and fans would line up to have a shot on puchasing an inventory which for any given game was about 200 seats plus those dreaded standing rooms at the top of the balcony.
Contrast that to the Buffalo Braves, where attendance was spotty. Not mentioned in the article was that the Braves often papered the house with free or heavily discounted tickets to prop up in house crowds. Produce a receipt from a former area supermarket chain, Bells, and you could snag an orange ticket for 50 cents to any weeknight Braves game. FIFTY CENTS! The Braves shifted a few of their games to Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in attempt to regionalize the franchise’s base. Not mentioned.
Additionally, was there any word of the racial divide going on around the city during that time? Nope. In the early 70s, the east side was burning, white people were fleeing in droves, and basketball? Well, that was the black man’s sport. In 2016 the concept seems almost ridiculous to fathom, but the shameful story that nobody wants to touch is that racism was an issue back then, and did play a part in driving attendance.
Snyder now claims that he had a great relationship with the Sabres. But this whitewashes the truth. Snyder could never stomach the notion that the Sabres had not only better dates in the building, but better concession contracts, and in arena advertising rights. He complained bitterly and publicly to the Erie County Legislature, the Buffalo Common Council, anyone who would listen to him. It became a regular refrain and soap opera and accented the gap between Buffalo’s new money and old money. Snyder was a self made businessman; his stewardship of Freezer Queen had made him a very rich man at a very young age. The Sabres owners, Seymour and Northrup Knox, represented old money and the Buffalo Club circuit. While Snyder spewed out his regular tantrums, the Knoxes remained largely above the fray.
Mind you, this shouldn’t have ever become a winner and loser situation. Both teams should have flourished, both teams should have cooperated on the sharing of the building and its potential bounty, and created marketing synergies to assist both franchises. The Sabres’ hands aren’t clean in this either. On more than one occasion, they foiled the Braves plans for growth and success. The arguments even devolved into the minutiae of who controlled staff parking spaces right outside the building, or who had more ticket windows in the Terrace Street lobby. Despite four ownership changes, to this day the Sabres organization refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Buffalo Braves and their place in the community and its history.
We’ve made numerous attempts over the past decade and more with the Sabres front office to do the right thing and raise a banner to the arena’s roof to memorialize the Buffalo Braves franchise. The most traction we ever got was with then Sabres Executive VP Ron Bertovich during the Adelphia days. Bertovich was very receptive to the idea, even suggesting the groundwork which would make this happen. But before plans could be set into motion, the Adelphia scandal hit, and by the time the Golisano ownership was in place, Bertovich was gone.
Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn did a complete eye roll and walked away when we attempted to inititate conversations on the plan. Only later did we find out that Quinn had worked for the Braves as an intern in his younger days and had been let go. Such a concept had no interest to Quinn. Then in 2014, we met with Sabres president Ted Black to pitch the idea, even laying out an elaborate presentation. Black seemed intrigued by the idea, suggesting a statue or marker in the Aud block footprint instead of a banner in the arena. We responded “Why not both?” He said he’d get back to us. Never did. Now Black is gone.
As for current Sabres president Russ Brandon? Somehow, we can’t imagine him giving the time of day to such a proposal.
And there in lies the problem. There is something in the Sabres’ franchise DNA that just hates the Buffalo Braves, even though almost all the original participants in the scrum are long gone.
But back to Snyder.
He wanted to cash out of the Buffalo Braves long before John Y. Brown came onto the scene. In June of 1976, Snyder held a press conference to announce that he was selling the team to a hotel magnate named Irwing Cowan and the team would be moving to a building called the Sportatorium in Hollywood, Florida. Mind you, that facility wasn’t even mildly suitable for the NBA, not air conditioned, and had open gaps between the end zone columns and the roof. The deal fell through, but that whole mess got the City of Buffalo jumping into the mix, filing antitrust suits with the team and the NBA, citing breach of contract with the city, where a 15 year lease had been hammered out, but never signed, to keep the Braves in Buffalo.
Snyder abandoned those cash grab plans, and that 15 year lease eventually got signed, but with a HUGE escape clause – that the team could break the lease if certain season ticket sales markers were not met. The Chamber of Commerce got involved; civic leaders stepped up and bought season tickets, but that magical number of 5000 season tickets was never breached.
The eventual sale and demise of the Buffalo Braves was so complicated that it would keep the best accountants at H and R Block up for many nights. Essentially, he could write off his players contracts as depreciating assets, and on an accelerated schedule of 5 years, but then would have to “recapture” those deductions on any future sale of the players and treat that as ordinary income. But by sellling the team one could simply just lower the cost basis of the team and then treat the profit on the sale as a capital gain, which is taxed at a far lower rate. In the end, the financial shenanigans got far more complicated – the Braves were actually swapped with the Boston Celtics. John Y. Brown, now the owner of the team, became the Celtics owner, while the Celtics owner Irving Levin became the new owner of the Buffalo Braves, then moving the team to San Diego.
Surprisingly, the Buffalo Braves actually managed to have some golden years despite the ownership and front office chaos. The Braves made several playoff runs in the mid 70s. When we interviewed Bob McAdoo a few years back, he spoke wistfully of the Braves, saying they were one player away from winning it all. Had Snyder kept the team together and added the missing piece or pieces needed, who knows what might have happened just as the NBA was entering its golden age in the 80s.
And don’t discount Snyder’s passion and energy. In 1974 infamous NBA referee Darrell Garretson called a phantom foul on Bob McAdoo, right at the final buzzer, in game 6 of the 1974 playoff series against Boston, allowing Jo Jo White to make two winning free throws against the Braves to end the series. Snyder was pounding on the door at the referee’s locker room in the bowels of the Aud after the game, in full view of the media, demanding to be admitted and have it out. Garretson and his fellow referees actually barricaded the door while Snyder nearly crashed it down. Can you even imagine Seymour Knox making such a scene?
Snyder remains as one of Buffalo’s prominent citizens to this day. His Darien Lake theme park and the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel (built with huge public subsidies), remain his high profile legacies to the community. His ownership of the Buffalo Braves and his stewardship of the franchise should not be discounted. But at the end of the day, he made a huge profit with his failed team, the partners he brought in to feed at the trough also made huge dollars and didn’t give a damn about you or me or anyone else in Buffalo. Let’s not rewrite history and lionize them, but instead call them out for what they were, greedy professional sports franchise owners.
As for the Buffalo Braves, they are now called the Los Angeles Clippers and the team was recently sold to former Microsoft president Steve Ballmer. The sale price? $2-billion. Hindsight is always 20-20, but maybe if Snyder had just held on and nurtured his franchise, perhaps today he’d be an obscenely rich man and we’d be naming schools and expressways after him.