Off the Record: Disappointing change to blog summit hurts the event

It’s been nearly five years since I decided to start this little boondoggle called Two in the Box. I had spent a month blogging about my time at the Vancouver Olympics and I decided it was a good time and that I’d continue the fun when I got home.

My time as a venomous, small time, basement brigadier has given me the chance to keep writing on a semi-regular basis about a topic that is near and dear to my heart. It’s been fun and it’s even given me the chance to take on some cool opportunities. One of those opportunities is the ability to receive a press pass at Sabres home games. Another is access into the back room of Willy Wonka’s Factory – aka, the Sabres front office.

The Sabres have been running blog summits with slightly more regularity than my writing schedule over the past few years. I’ve personally made it to four or five of the meet ups and they’ve all featured their own level of intrigue for me.

My first Sabres Blog Summit occurred in the media room in press conference fashion with the Sabres PR and marketing teams on hand. Ted Black was the guest of honor and he sat at the front of the room, took our questions and answered them earnestly. Whether it was a question about the chances of starting a regional sports network, the return of the Frozen Four or the makeup of the roster, he addressed everything we asked with quality information. We all reported on the process and it was massively successful.

What I took away from the summits featuring Black was the positive discourse and his willingness to answer each question to the best of his ability. Hell, he all but confirmed that the Sabres were going to retire Dominik Hasek’s number once he was retired at a previous summit. Those encounters with Black as the MC not only gave us a chance to voice our opinions but to get answers and report back on them. It was a terrific practice that was unique in many ways.

Somewhere along the lines all of that changed.

The tradition of the summit continued both this year and last, but the tradition was about all that remained. The structure and scope was no different; a group of bloggers were invited to share an audience with members of the organization and each of the last two featured the team’s social media manager, Craig Kanalley. The most recent summit came ahead of the Sabres game against the Jets in November and featured two other members of the organization’s marketing team. What was different, aside from Ted Black’s absence, was that everything was off the record. We couldn’t report on anything that was discussed at either meeting. (For the record, the inclusion of Brent Rossi and John Durbin at the last summit made for a far more effective conversation than our previous audience with Craig as there were more topics open to be addressed.)

I’m still not sure why this rule is being enforced.

There were certainly topics of conversation and a few answers that I understand keeping under wraps. So I understand that certain parts of the discussion were best left untouched. However, there were plenty of topics discussed at each of the last two summits that created a constructive conversation between everyone present at the summit and that did nothing to undermine the direction or actions of the organization.

What made the Sabres blogging community so robust and engaging was that there were multiple people offering multiple viewpoints. Calling us together gives the opportunity the chance to hear different voices and opinions from a group that is directly tied to the fanbase. To make what takes place at these meetings a big secret basically makes the meetings themselves a waste of time.

It’s great that the Sabres take the time to include us in these type of events. Free beer and wings are great and taking the time to discuss the myriad of topics we bring up is much appreciated. But I’ve felt like the last two summits have become more about sucking up to the group, as a whole, than actually listening to the feedback we provide.

The last two summits I attended have served as a sounding board for some very good ideas. From the direction of the social media accounts to introducing more giveaways during the season, a ton of ideas have been floated at the last two meetings. The prevailing feeling I’ve taken away from each is that these ideas went in one ear and out the other. In fact, it would appear as if the opinion of the marketing team is that once the tickets are sold that their work is done – this is something that plenty of people have mentioned in recent weeks and months.

This isn’t about giving us, as a group, something to write about either. Every site I know and read has no trouble creating quality content. This is about turning what once was an engaging, worthwhile endeavor and making it little more than a pointless exercise in glad-handing.

Sounds a little bit like the team’s Twitter account, no?

Buffalo is a passionate hockey market. Sure, there are plenty of fans out there with a questionable point of view on the game of hockey, but not everyone is Scotty Bowman. In hindsight, the Sabres have it easy. Even in a pair of thin seasons, the arena is still quite full on most nights, advertising doesn’t seem to be lacking and the fan base is just as interested in the draft position as they are in winning each game. There’s not much at stake when it comes to picking good music, providing cool fan giveaways or having an entertaining, informative Twitter account. So, in that respect, there may not be a need to feed a bunch of nerdy bloggers information ahead of the press or anyone else.

The Sabres are able to control their message quite well. I mean, the former GM basically said they were setting up to tank and get #highpicks and now there’s a segment of the fan base ready to die on their swords for Connor McDavid.

So what’s my point? I’m one of a small group of people who actively run a website devoted to the trials and tribulations of the Buffalo Sabres. The organization cares enough to invite me in for tea and crumpets (beer and wings) and obviously they hold some level of respect for my writing. Why do I need anything more than that? Why not just settle for the fact that they care enough to let me see inside their windows?

For me it’s because I know they can do better. The Sabres are good enough to bring us into their house for a conversation but I’m not sure what we’re saying is being heard anymore. Maybe it wasn’t being heard when Ted Black was hanging out and having a few beers, but we were given the opportunity to offer our insights and then report back on what we were told. Someone like myself could go to the summit and find out if the Sabres are planning on putting a full ribbon board around the 300 level (they aren’t). If they’re going to try to limit what we can and can’t bring back from these summits, what’s the point? Is the idea to get us together, list our ideas and poach the best ones? If that’s the case then Homer Simpson has two words for you.

The Sabres have a tremendous blogging community and the organization deserves to be commended for allowing certain sites access to the press box and other events. Clearly they appreciate the coverage and insight we provide as a whole. If only all of their blogger outreach events were as unobstructed.

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