Kim Pegula Wielding Unprecedented Power

By Mark Gaughan
The Buffalo News, N.Y.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Kim Pegula is one of only two women in the NFL with full control of the day-to-day management of a team. In addition, she is the only current female president in the NHL.

The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Kim Pegula is blazing new territory in taking over as president of both the Bills and Sabres and faces a huge task in being the hands-on overseer of both franchises.

In the wake of Russ Brandon’s resignation from Pegula Sports and Entertainment Tuesday, Pegula now is one of only two women in the NFL with full control of the day-to-day management of a team.

She is the only current female president in the NHL.

Kim Pegula unquestionably is one of the most powerful women in North American sports, without even considering the other elements of the Pegula empire. Those also include the Buffalo Bandits and Rochester Americans, along with HarborCenter, other real estate holdings, a recording industry label and other retail brands.

“Businesses benefit from good leadership, which I believe Kim will provide,” said Amy Trask, who became the first woman chief executive officer in the NFL in 1997 and served that role for the Oakland Raiders until 2013. “No matter the race, gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality or other individualities of leaders, none of those individualities have any bearing whatsoever on whether someone can do a job. I wish Kim every success and hope that she is evaluated and treated without regard to gender.”

Obviously, Kim Pegula and husband, Terry, already carry a huge responsibility in Western New York as co-owners of the city’s beloved major sports franchises. Taking on the role of president only adds to Kim’s burden.

In a text message to The Buffalo News Wednesday, Kim Pegula said: “There’s lots to be excited about going forward with both teams.”

She said she had no further comment on her new role at this time, beyond the statement announcing Brandon’s resignation as managing partner and president of PSE.

Kim Pegula, 48, has served as chief operating officer of PSE since it was formed in 2011. Her business background is not nearly as extensive as Brandon’s when he took over as Bills CEO in 2010.

Presuming Pegula is going to take on similar responsibilities to Brandon, one of her big tasks will be to forge strong relationships with the region’s business leaders.

Brandon had overseen those relationships since 1997 and had a read on the pulse of the business community.

“Russ could go to the Buffalo Club or Oak Hill Country Club or a dinner meeting, and sponsors and business executives in the region would be very candid about what they thought the team needed to do or how the region was feeling,” said a former Bills administrator who asked not to be named. “He could get a candid sense from the community on what needed to be done.”

With that in mind, the Pegulas figure to be busier than ever when they are in Western New York.

The Pegulas have a residence in Boca Raton, Fla. Will they spend more time in Buffalo, given the significant tax benefits to being primary residents of Florida? Kim uses videoconferencing to communicate with PSE staff when she isn’t in town.

Trask thinks there are advantages to eliminating the president “layer” of management between the owner and the top football administrator.

“There are challenges in running an NFL team, of course,” said Trask, now a CBS Sports analyst. “While I don’t want to in any way underestimate or minimize challenges Kim will face or the work she will have to do, I will note that she will not face many of the challenges that other team presidents do, in that she is a team owner, as well.”

Most NFL teams have a business person, not a “football talent evaluator,” in the role of team president. Only three teams arguably have a “football man” as president (Dallas, Green Bay and Washington).

In hockey, it’s different.

More than a dozen NHL teams have former prominent players or general managers in the role of president, highlighted by the likes of John Davidson (Columbus), Glen Sather (Edmonton), Paul Holmgren (Philadelphia), David Poile (Nashville), Cam Neely (Boston) and Brendan Shanahan (Toronto), among others. Other teams have presidents with varying backgrounds such as business, marketing, public relations or law.

The Sabres have not had a lot of checks and balances in their hockey department and have repeatedly declined to hire a president of hockey over their general manager. One exception was the brief tenure of Pat LaFontaine, who resigned under murky circumstances after just 3 1/2 months as president of hockey operations in 2014.

The Pegulas can rely on their general managers — Brandon Beane with the Bills and Jason Botterill with the Sabres — for day-to-day, on-the-field management.

Yet it’s on the team president to create synergy between the on-field and business sides of the franchises.
Timeline: Russ Brandon and the Bills

Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy liked to say “organizational trust” was a critical component of the Bills’ Super Bowl teams.

When there’s a stalemate between the business and football side, between the coach and the general manager or among any other top executives, it’s up to ownership or the president to get everyone on the same page. It’s easier said than executed. During their playoff drought, the Bills generally did not have enough organizational trust between coaching and personnel departments.

Obviously, ownership is involved in major decisions on any team. But to use one example, let’s say the business side thinks it’s critical to have sponsors on the team plane. The football side wants no part of it. The president typically sorts out the myriad of such decisions.

“There should not be ‘sides’ in an organization,” Trask said. “It is one organization, which should have one goal, and everyone must work to achieve that goal. As for setting the tone, of course the senior executive, as Kim will be, plays an important role in creating the appropriate environment. But so too do owners, which Kim is.”

If the Pegulas’ management of the Sabres is any indication, Kim Pegula will not be afraid to shake up the status quo as she deems necessary.

She has presided over a tumultuous time in Sabres history. Since February 2013, the list of the most prominent hockey department personnel who have been dismissed, in order, reads like this: Lindy Ruff, Darcy Regier, Ron Rolston, LaFontaine, Ted Nolan, Ted Black, Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray. Many others have come and gone in the normal course of losing hockey seasons, from all departments of the club.

But it is well-known in hockey circles that Kim Pegula has often been the main player prodding her husband to take action with top Sabres officials, and that she particularly did not see eye-to-eye with LaFontaine and Murray.

During a 2016 profile on NFL.com, Kim Pegula jokingly referred to herself as “The Black Widow,” a nickname she said she picked up for all the firings she conducted with the Bills and Sabres. Some current and former employees of the teams still refer to her by that name.

The job of the owner and president becomes easier when strong on-the-field leadership is in place and making winning decisions. Early indications are the Bills might have that in coach Sean McDermott and Beane. The jury remains out on the Sabres.

Another heavy lift Kim Pegula likely faces is picking up from Brandon the role of being the point person for a renovation of KeyBank Center. It opened in 1996 and has fallen well behind most NHL arenas built around that time in terms of amenities and premium seating. Brandon had traveled extensively the last two years visiting other arenas to explore possibilities for what he told The News last month would be “the next phase of KeyBank Center.”

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