Empire Sports Network, the home of Buffalo Sabres hockey from 1991 to 2005, celebrates a somber anniversary in March. It was ten years ago that Empire Sports ceased operations as a regional sports network. The actual final day of transmission was March 7th, 2005, although operations actually ceased six weeks prior when all but two employees were dismissed.

On March 7th, Engineer Dennis Majewicz was the last remaining employee and threw the switch to shut down Empire’s satellite transmission. Now ten years later the vacuum left by the departure of Empire Sports Network has never been filled.

Empire Sports Network

Bob Koshinski with John Rigas and Seymour Knox III

Empire Sports Network was the idea of Adelphia Communications founder John Rigas. John and son Mike first contacted me about the idea of creating a Buffalo based regional sports network in 1989, but it took two years to bring the idea to fruition. That was only after the decision was made to base it in Buffalo and not Coudersport Pennsylvania where Adelphia’s corporate headquarters were located.

Empire officially went on the air the night of December 31st 1990, carrying a Sabres/Flyers game. Over the next five years Empire expanded to Rochester and Syracuse, but was still a somewhat modest operation. Programming consisted of live Sabres, Bisons and Pittsburgh Pirate games.

Locally produced studio shows included “Hockey Hotline”, “The Bill Polian Show”, “Sportsline”, “Thurman Thomas Show”, “Fan Forum”, “Pros and Cons”, “Not Just Sports”, “High School Highlights”, “Sportsfire” and a few others.

Empire Sports Network

Fan-TV anchors Jim Brinson and Howard Simon

It wasn’t until the fall of 1996 when Empire debuted the sports/news program “Fan-TV” that the network began to build additional viewership and migrated east to Albany and Binghamton. “Fan-TV” was live Monday through Friday from 4:30pm to 7pm with anchors Howard Simon and Jim Brinson.

The two and a half hour sports news desk program covered everything from Bills, Sabres, regional college teams and even high school sports. However, it was January 22, 1997 that “Fan-TV” and Empire Sports grew beyond the perception of being just a local cable TV sports channel.

On that afternoon “Fan-TV” broke one of the biggest stories in the history of Buffalo sports, Jim Kelly’s retirement as quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. The seed of the story began that morning as Steve Tasker, in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, hinted on a WGR radio morning interview that Kelly may be considering retirement.

No other media outlet in Buffalo picked up Tasker’s comment, but for the next six hours the entire on-air and production staff at Empire Sports threw everything into the Kelly retirement story. Once confirmed by multiple sources, including Jim’s brother Dan, support interviews were lined up with Kelly’s teammates and highlights of the quarterback’s career were edited together.

When “Fan-TV” broke the story at 4:31pm viewers and the rest of the western New York media were completely caught by surprise. For the next two days “Fan-TV” and Empire Sports was the go-to place for the Kelly story. The Network suddenly established itself as a serious player in the region’s sports news arena and became a daily must-see.

Then in 1998 Adelphia and the Rigas family purchased the Buffalo Sabres and the focus on the hockey team expanded. In fact, when the Sabres advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 1999 Empire Sports’ coverage of the team began each week day at noon and continued throughout the day until the conclusion of “Hockey Hotline” some twelve hours later.

Empire Sports Network

Brian Blessing and Mike Robitaille on Hockey Hotline

“Hockey Hotline” was the Network’s single most popular program and was recognized by the NHL as the league’s most successful post-game show. With former Sabre player and broadcaster Mike Robitaille taking phone calls and providing entertaining and informative dialogue with co-host Brian Blessing, the show maintained over half the viewing audience that had viewed that night’s game.

The coverage that Empire Sports provided the Sabres day in and day out was the envy of the NHL. To the point, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was once quoted as saying “If the rest of the league was covered like Empire Sports covers the Sabres, we would be as big as the NFL.”

In fact, in 2001 when a research survey conducted by Travers and Collins concluded that the Empire Sports Network was ranked as the region’s number one source for sports. Included in the survey were the three Buffalo television network affiliates, local radio stations and national cable TV sports channel ESPN.

Empire Sports Network

Bob Trimble with Jim Brinson

Empire Sports Network peaked in 2001 with over 1.7 million subscribers across New York, northern Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio. The network also had over five million viewers nationally on the various satellite services.

It was also in 2001 that Empire Sports enjoyed a partnership with newly created all-sports WNSA-FM, also owned by Adelphia Communications. Utilizing the combined resources of both Empire and WNSA in the same facility, Buffalo sports teams received coverage never seen before or since. It was a great time to work at the Network, but that all soon changed.

Empire Sports Network

Jim Basquil, Josh Mora and Bremante Bryant

In 2002 the Security and Exchange Commission began an investigation of Adelphia’s finances and the Rigas family was removed from Adelphia leadership. The resulting bankruptcy began a decline for Empire Sports despite the Network’s healthy profit margin. In 2002 Empire Sports’ net profit was a healthy $10 million dollars, but that was small potatoes compared to the multi-billion dollar debt Adelphia needed to restructure.

There were several near misses for Empire’s survival as the Hamister group planned on purchasing the network along with the Sabres, but when the bid fell through so did any real chance the network had for survival. The Buffalo Bills were interested as well, but Adelphia was not a willing seller.

Eventual Sabres owner Tom Golisano and team President Larry Quinn chose not to buy Empire Sports when the team was purchased from Adelphia Communications. When the existing Empire contract expired the Sabres instead signed a new carriage agreement with New York City based Madison Square Garden Network.

Next the Adelphia Board of Directors appointed new CEO William Schleyer and Ron Cooper as COO and Empire’s fate was sealed. The pair were promised bonus payments of approximately $16 and $8 million dollars respectively to take Adelphia out of bankruptcy. They technically accomplished the feat just before selling the company off to cable TV giants Time Warner and Comcast.

Empire employees found that Schleyer and Cooper had zero attachment to the work force in the Buffalo area and certainly none for the entities created by the Rigas family such as Empire Sports or WNSA-FM. That was especially disappointing when it was discovered that Chief Operating officer Ron Cooper was a WNY native, born in Lewiston and a graduate of Lew-Port high school.

At the end of the day the corporate mercenaries hired to run Adelphia discovered that the monthly $1.98 Empire Sports subscriber fee which was built into every cable bill would result in pure profit once the network was shut down and operational and staffing expenses eliminated.

If Adelphia sold the network, that fee would instead go to the new operator. That represented a potential $21.2 million dollar annual hit at the bottom of Adelphia’s spread sheet. Something the bean counters in Denver would never allow to happen.

Now ten years later the fine Empire Sports Network on-air alumni are spread throughout the region and the country. Howard Simon can be heard doing mornings on WGR radio, Jim Brinson is the morning host at all-sports KKSP in Arkansas, Mike Robitaille has retired from the Buffalo Sabres broadcast team but still does a weekly show on WGR radio, Pete Weber is the voice of the Nashville Predators, Josh Mora is an Engagement and Strategy Executive at Full Sail University, Mike DeGeorge is Director of Communications for Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and the Buffalo Police Department, Bob Trimble is Verizon Sales Consultant for Small Business in Pittsburgh, Jason Bristol is Sports Director at WHP Ch 21 Harrisburg Pennsylvania, Ginger Geoffrey is Director of Social Marketing at The Mac Groups, Brian Blessing is a host at Sportsbook radio in Las Vegas. Art Wander has retired but still writes columns for allsportswny.com and spends his days entertaining his beautiful grand-daughter. Bremante Bryant is a reporter at WHUR-96.3 FM in Washington D.C, Paul Maguire is retired from his many national gigs and is still involved with the Bills Alumni, Jim Basquil is an ESPN Digital Media Talent and Chris Brown is a writer and on-air talent for the Buffalo Bills. Former GM’s include Rich Bradley (CEO at Shoppers’ Critique International), Ron Bertovich ( Deputy Commissioner of basketball at the Colonial Athletic Association) and myself.

I am often asked if another regional sports network could be successful some ten years after Empire’s demise. Certainly the Pegula’s have the necessary ingredients and resources to make it happen, although the landscape has changed greatly since Empire Sports last occupied a channel space on both cable and satellite providers. Still, owning Sabres telecasts and Buffalo Bill support programming would give the Pegula’s the type of leverage they would need to convince providers to bump downstate sports channels in favor of a Pegula Sports Entertainment entity.

In my final staff meeting as General Manager in 2005 I told those in attendance that we were probably never quite as good as we will be remembered, but that we were pretty damn good. By that I meant that people tend to romanticize the past and will build up the memory of Empire Sports beyond what it actually was.

Seeing the current state of the regional television and radio industry in the region, I was wrong. The Empire Sports Network was better than pretty damn good! The Network rightfully earned the praise and fond memories that viewers still have to this day.

Now looking back, what an honor and pleasure and to have worked with so many fine and dedicated people who walked those halls at the Empire Sports Network. Those people are the reason the Network is still remembered today and will be for many years to come.

Invalid Displayed Gallery

Filed under: Koshinski's Korner

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Readers Comments (0)

Sorry, comments are closed on this post.