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Time Warner viewers, Sabres share your pain

by T.J. Pignataro

Sabres & NHL - The Buffalo News

Thu, Jan 12th 2012 10:00 am
The Buffalo News  [ View Original Article ]

 You know that Paul William Beltz is your "power of attorney."

That you have to "make the right decision" by insisting on Carubba Collision.

And that Yancey's Fancy is "New York's Artisan Cheese."

The voice of Rick Jeanneret -- or another Sabres announcer -- echoes through these printed words because you've heard them hundreds of times before.

Now, you're not hearing them at all -- if you have Time Warner Cable.

That's not a big problem just for you. The Sabres and their sponsors are fit to be tied.

The dispute between Time Warner and Madison Square Garden network, the New York City-based regional sports carrier with the exclusive rights to Sabres telecasts, plummeted the Sabres' stratospheric television rating from an average season 8.3 share down to 3.2 for Tuesday's 4-3 victory over Edmonton at First Niagara Center.

In other words, nearly two-thirds of the TVs tuned into Sabres hockey -- the NHL's leading American television market -- before the New Year are now darkened by MSG's Jan. 1 removal from Time Warner.

In addition to the on-air sponsorships and commercials, the loss of air time is reducing dasher board and on-ice exposures, meaning sponsors and the Sabres are watching money and opportunities to reach a captivated audience circle the drain. The Sabres are particularly affected by the local advertising because the team, not MSG or Time Warner, sells and benefits from that advertising.

"By all means, it does have an impact on our company," said Jodi Stahl, marketing manager at Yancey's Fancy of Corfu, explaining that advertising with the Sabres has helped the business expand tremendously. "I'd say it is a big part of our growth in the last few years.

"No matter where we go -- even on the West Coast -- people have said, 'Oh, yes, we've seen your commercial on the Sabres' games.'"

The 25-year-old "Carubba Collision of the Game" is the "best advertising promotion" the company has "ever done," according to Joe Carubba, president and CEO of Carubba Collision.

"We count on it," Carubba said. "It gets our name out into the community. We've become part of the Sabres game."

Carubba says the cable tug-of-war won't affect his company's decision to continue with the Sabres, but he admits he's upset not all viewers are seeing the game. He expects it will affect Carubba's business.

"This is our busiest season. This is when accidents happen -- when there's snow and ice," Carubba said. "We're not in front of hundreds of thousands of people a couple times a week. I'm sure it will have an effect."

Team will work with sponsors

 As for the Sabres' business, Sabres President Ted Black struck a familiar tone: It's not about the money, it's about the fans.

The Sabres will honor the team's commitments to sponsors, and the team intends to compensate those aggrieved by the cable flap, Black said.

"There's a level of comfort that we're going to do the right thing by them," said Black, who added that team officials have been communicating with sponsors since the dispute began. The chief concern for sponsors, the team finds, is how to best allocate their advertising dollars.

They want to know: How long is this going to continue? And, how are they going to be able to maximize their messages?

"It may impact their buying decisions," Black said.

For instance, sponsors who bought space on the dasher boards along the ice did so last year for the entire 2011-12 season. Television ads are purchased on a month-to-month basis, so the team may see an impact come February, March and April, should the dispute carry on.

Black expects that rather than quantifying reimbursements for claims of underexposure, the team will likely make adjustments for sponsors on renewals or offer "bonus spots" at the end of the season.

Carubba doesn't doubt the team will make good on its promises.

"I have all the faith in the world with them," Carubba said. "Before it even became a public issue, they were in contact with us.

"They promised to make it up to us. Throughout all the different ownerships, they've been great."

Yancey's Fancy is still working to identify the deleterious effects the blackout has had on its advertising strategy, Stahl said.

"We will we talking with the Sabres group. Hopefully, it will not have any bearing on our sponsorships in the future," Stahl said. "There may be some need for negotiating in terms of what we've lost."

Meanwhile, Sabres officials don't expect the team's bottom line to suffer much.

"As a percentage of our overall revenues, it's not going to have a material impact on our business," Black said. "It's not a full season."

Even if the Time Warner and MSG stalemate stole the rest of the NHL regular season, the Sabres would still average a 5.7 share television rating for the season, good enough for the third-highest American television hockey market.

The 8.3 average share for the season represents upward of 55,000 households in the Buffalo metro area alone. That's not including the Rochester and Syracuse areas and all points east to Albany. Tuesday's 3.2 share dropped Sabres TV viewers to 21,000 households.

Sabres say the fans come first

 All numbers aside, however, what concerns the team the most?

Its fans, Black said.

"I won't be happy until this is solved," Black said. "It's all about the fans for me.

"What I appreciate more than anything is the fans sticking with us. Thick or thin. Whether they can get the games or can't get the games."

Black downplayed suggestions the Sabres hold leverage in executing creative solutions to air the team's games.

In fact, at Friday night's "viewing party" at First Niagara Center, Black confirmed to The Buffalo News earlier speculation that the Sabres asked MSG for permission to live-stream games on the team's website.

"They denied that request," Black said.

Any easing of the rules to telecast Sabres games, Black said, requires the consent of MSG because MSG owns the exclusive right to distribute the games.

"It's very flippant to think all (fans) need to do is change providers," Black said. "It's more involved than that."

He reiterated that the Sabres -- who are under contract with MSG through 2016-17 -- consider the network "a very good partner."

"But, as I've told them and I'll tell them again," Black said, "they're not the most important partner. Our fans are the most important partner."

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