The Rochester Knighthawks will celebrate their 25th anniversary season in 2018-19.
Then it’s back to square one. Technically at least.
About four hours after Knighthawks owner Curt Styres announced he would be moving the team to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the 2019-20 season in a heartfelt letter to fans on Thursday, the National Lacrosse League announced it had awarded an expansion franchise for Rochester to sports moguls Terry and Kim Pegula.
The Pegulas already own the NLL's Buffalo Bandits, the Knighthawks' fiercest rival, along with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, NHL’s Sabres and AHL’s Rochester Americans.
The announcement came at an outdoor news conference on the Genesee River side of the Blue Cross Arena at the Rochester War Memorial where Mayor Lovely Warren announced $18 million in improvements to the aging facility where the new lacrosse team, like the current one, will remain a key tenant, also beginning in 2019-20.
“They will have the Knighhawks legacy and we’re very proud to contribute again to western New York and the Rochester community in keeping the team here,’’ he said.
In 2011, the Pegulas stepped in to purchase the financially struggling Amerks and reinstalled that flagship team as the farm club of the Sabres, which they had purchased four months earlier from Rochester’s Tom Golisano.
The Pegulas, who operate Pegula Sports and Entertainment (PSE), also own a music label, marketing services and arena management branches.
PSE took over management of Blue Cross Arena on Aug. 1 and are negotiating a long-term contract.
The NLL, founded in 1986, is growing for the first time in a decade, adding franchises in Philadelphia and San Diego for this season. Those ownership groups paid an expansion fee of $5 million and it's roughly around the same price the Pegulas paid for the company. (Purchase Price was $5,575,000)
That amount is in the neighborhood of what Styres paid for the Knighthawks in June 2008 when he purchased the financially struggling team from Steve Donner, immediately providing stability.
The NLL has a policy prohibiting multiple ownership of teams in the league and also from franchises being placed within a 73.1-mile distance arena-to-arena. The league’s board of governors waived those rules this time.
NLL chief operating officer Dave Rowan said franchises are studied on a case by case basis. In this instance, two current owners (the Pegulas and Styres) had a shared desire to keep a team in Rochester.
“It’s very simple,’’ Rowan said. “Rochester has had a team for 25 years. We had an ownership group that stepped up and said, ‘We’d like to own another team and do it in a venue where we already have our AHL team in and we’re taking over running.’ It synergistically made sense.’’
Their roll call of stars includes Gary and Paul Gait, John Grant Jr., Cody Jamieson, Casey Powell, Steve Dietrich, Pat O’Toole and Matt Vinc.
Styres will be allowed to take to Halifax any coach or player under contract, Rowan said. It has yet to be determined if he can keep all of the Knighthawks' records. The new K-Hawks will be stocked through an expansion draft. Team colors and uniform design could change.
“Because of the quality of both ownership groups, it’s been a smooth transition already,’’ Rowan said. “You have two great owners that really care about this community. Curt won a lot of championships here but he’s also provided a lot to the community with youth programs, serving underprivileged kids. The Pegulas will do the same. It’s in their DNA.’’
In his letter, Styres praised the passion of his team’s fan base and that he was most proud that he achieved his goal of leaving the franchise in better shape than he found it and was happy to leave it in very good hands.
“For all the fans of the Rochester community, it was very important for my family and I to make sure that your Rochester franchise would be well looked after,’’ Styres wrote.
The development was a year in the making and the result of personal connections.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott was an intern for Rowan when Rowan was an executive with the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1990s. When Rowan came to visit McDermott at Bills training camp in summer 2017, he met with PSE executive Bruce Popko, another past NFL colleague.
It was then they discussed a perfect scenario that would satisfy Styres' desire to have a team in his native Canada and the Pegula’s desire to operate a second NLL franchise in a building they hoped to be managing.
“It just made sense from everybody’s part and conversations continued for the last year,’’ Rowan said.
Saving the Amerks and now pro lacrosse in Rochester is personally gratifying for Kim Pegula, an orphan who grew up in Fairport with her adopted family, who were big Amerks fans.
“I’m very proud,’’ she said. “I grew up here and this is home to me. I have such great memories here, especially the War Memorial. I spent a lot of time here.’’
Starting an expansion franchise is a challenge she looks forward to, she said, that and those nights when the Knighthawks and Bandits play.
“I can’t pick one over the other,'' she said. "I’m just happy we’re able to keep a team here in Rochester. Curt has done a wonderful job and for the team to be here 25 years…we’re just happy to be able to continue that.’’
The Pegulas are contributing financially to upgrades at the arena, paying for a new a state-of-the-art video scoreboard for starters.
Plans to upgrade locker rooms, concession areas, lighting and other technology were critical to keeping the Amerks and Knighthawks in town and improving the fan experience that will help draw fans, Warren said.
“This is a game changer for Rochester,’’ she said of partnering with the Pegulas.
“We have a partner now that we know is here for the long term and committed to the citizens of Rochester. Not only have they purchased two franchises, they are (helping with) making capital improvements, so Rochester has a bright future for sports and entertainment in our community.’’
Sen. Rich Funke, a former Rochester sportscaster, called it a good day for Rochester lacrosse and area sports in general.
“Once you lose a franchise it’s hard to get it back,’’ he said. “Lacrosse is such an important part of this community. To have a professional team leave, you lose something like that, you lose a lot. You don’t get it back. So I’m thankful the Pegulas picked it up and are keeping a team here. And I’ll be curious to see how they do when the Bandits are playing the Knighthawks.’’
-Written by D&C
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