Sports Business Conference Opens With Keynote From Kim Pegula
Penn State’s inaugural Sports Business Conference continued Friday morning with its opening session, highlighted by a keynote address from Kim Pegula.
Conference President Alex Sheinman started the session, explaining the dedication he and his team have to this conference and purpose. “We treated this day like it was our Super Bowl,” Sheinman said.
Sandy Barbour gave a video address, as she’s currently with the wrestling team in Cleveland for the NCAA Championship meet. AT&T Vice President and General Manager Judy Cavalieri also delivered opening remarks as a top partner in the conference, describing AT&T’s role in sports.
Pegula’s keynote was moderated by Abe Madkour, executive editor of SportsBusiness Journal/Daily.
“I was adopted from South Korea, was left on a doorstop of a police station, and the police was kind enough to send me to an orphanage, where I was until I was five years old,” Pegula explained.
At 5 years old, she was adopted by a Canadian family and from there grew up in Rochester, New York, “where my love of hockey started.” When she met Terry, he already had season tickets for the Sabres.
“When we bought the hockey team, it was such a great opportunity, because I got to see all the things that I loved about the game…all those things I got to get a backhand look at,” Pegula said. “Before, I was just a fan…It got me really hungry to be a part of it and to understand and learn.”
The Pegulas then bought the Buffalo Bills in 2014; the family was living in Florida at the time.
“When we bought the team, everyone kept saying, ‘Why Buffalo?'” Pegula said. “We were like, ‘Why not Buffalo?…That’s the team that we love.'”
They were the second-ever owners of the Bills.
She described how the Bills thrust her and her husband into the spotlight even more than owning the Sabres. At one point, a media outlet had created a side-by-side of Terry, Bon Jovi, and Donald Trump when they were all interested in the Bills.
Shortly after buying the Bills, Pegula decided to form Pegula Sports and Entertainment to manage both football and hockey, as well as the Pegulas’ other related holdings, like the Harbor Center that includes hockey rinks, a gym, a hotel, sports bar, and more.
“You can stay there, you can eat there, you can watch a game there or whatever event, and people have really enjoyed it,” Pegula said. The Harbor Center also hosts plenty of tournaments and is the home rink for its own club hockey team.
Pegula said she was happy to see conference attendees were from all different disciplines and not just what’s traditionally thought of as the sports world. Sports business has jump-started economic development for cities across the country.
“Always as a fan, he would come in, he would sit in his seat, and sit there and watch the game,” Pegula said of her husband, Terry. Conversely, she felt more at home in the experience of the game and the stadiums, concessions, and so on. Kim’s now more focused on the business side, while Terry works more on the personnel side and with their teams’ general managers.
Madkour asked Pegula what she thought of the NFL Sunday experience for fans traveling to games. “We talk about…getting [fans] excited for the game. Then once they get there, how do we make it easier for them?” Pegula said. For Bills fans, there’s an app that includes information about bathroom lines, upgrading seats in-game, marking your parking spot, and more.
“You can celebrate your friends and your family,” Pegula said. “That’s what live events provide that a television can’t.”
Pegula explained the hardest part of being a team owner is winning, but it’s also finding the right people to make your vision for the team a reality. Choosing a coach, especially, is not easy.
Madkour then opened the floor to questions from those attending the conference. A student asked what comes first for the Pegulas: profit or winning? Pegula didn’t hesitate: “Winning.” She said it’s not uncommon to find herself making business decisions that won’t necessarily bring the most profit if she thinks it will better help her teams win.
Pegula said player protests last season definitely hurt the league, and that it was a tough year. However, she believes the Super Bowl that brought out so many great stories helped; many teams this year will place high priority on rebuilding their fan bases.
The last question from the audience dealt with barriers to women in the sports world. “It was gotten a lot better,” Pegula said. “Unfortunately, I only have one female at the executive level in my PSE organization…At the end of the day, we want to hire people that are qualified.” She said networking with both men and women is key to being successful in the sports world.
Penn State’s Sports Business Conference kicked off Thursday night with a panel of professional-level athletes. The program continues through Friday with more networking, breakout sessions, and speakers.
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