Steve Donner Interview – Part III

“We weren’t asking for handouts – we just wanted to keep some of our own revenue that we were generating.”


LGA:  On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being extremely difficult and 10 being extremely easy) how was the city of Rochester to work with regards to the War Memorial lease?

Donner:  “A rating is tough.  Maybe a 3-4 … overall.  Johnson was better to work with.  His administration was more like a 5-7.  Also the County Executive at the time was good to work with – Jack Doyle.  After Johnson, an extraordinarily hard line was taken. There were a lot of politics going on behind the scenes.  They weren’t going to not appease the only billionaire in town.  The only way to keep up was a better lease.  The city said no.   If you look around, how do you think Utica got a team back?  Binghamton…they got a sweet heart of lease.  Those communities want their team.  You know, we weren’t asking for handouts – we just wanted to keep some of our own revenue that we were generating.”

“In the beginning, profits were invested 100% back into the team.  Because….pride in the city and to win championships.  Even the first several seasons of the K-hawks, the profits made there were invested back into the Amerks to sign veteran players.  But with players costs escalating like we discussed (for both teams) the Amerks started losing $50k – $200k every year. That’s even with the success we had on the ice.  With the city, we shared ad revenue, shared suite revenue, paid $1 surcharge to them for every ticket sold ….. and had no other revenue streams.  No parking, no concessions.  It always felt like one step forward, two steps back”

LGA:  Did you ever consider, threatening at least, to move the team?

Donner:  “Considered shutting down temporarily, but not moving, no.  And people advised me to only go down that road if I was serious – and I decided not to.”

LGA:  Is it true that before the renovation the city offered you the choice of the renovation OR a small cut of concessions?

Donner:  “No, there was no choice.  We were never going to get concessions then.”

LGA:  Did the renovation/expansion go as you envisioned?   And in hindsight, do you think it’s too big?

Donner: “ It was necessary.  It’s very difficult to attract today’s fans to an old barn.  It was great in many ways.  Fan amenities, suites, the lobby, increase in bathrooms.”

“The capacity is a positive/negative thing.  It needed to be bigger for concerts and other events.  It’s great for group sales  But on the negative side, an empty looking building doesn’t generate excitement.  That’s bad for business.  Marriot at the time actually wanted a 15k building.  The Court St. end would have looked like the Broad St end.”

“In the end – we never got a kick out of the renovation that we would have from a brand new building.”

LGA:  Wasn’t there talk of a lounge/overlook on the Broad St. side instead of all those seats?

 Donner: “Not on the Broad St. end.  There were talks of something like that where the upper atrium is now…and also where the two suites on the Court St. end are.  When that fell through we at least got suites put in there.”

 LGA:  The talk of complimentary tickets (comps) and pricing came up:

 Donner:  “The ticket price balance was hard.  It was always challenging to find the right financial model.  Comps can devalue but I had sponsors to keep happy.  A full building is better for them, it’s better for the fan experience and it’s better for the players.  Do you TRY and sell 5k at $15/each or 8k at $9/each?  One model is certainly to squeeze as much as you can out of your core fans who are your main revenue source.  That’s not what I did.  The number of comps were not as large as was reported.  Group promotions to sponsors, who had really paid in packages, were comped.

 LGA:  This is a tough question, but do you feel like the Rhinos and K-Hawks ended up hurting the Amerks.

Donner: “Well, we had a lot on our plate, but that didn’t hurt the Amerks.”  The K-hawks…No.   The Rhinos…much tougher answer… in some ways.  They weren’t a financial drain on the Amerks in any way, but the Amerks public perception was put at risk when the Rhinos stadium loans defaulted.  People could use those debts against the Amerks when issues surrounding the Amerks were discussed.”

  LGA:  Do you wish you had signed an affiliation agreement with Tampa back in ’03?

 Donner:  “It was ready to go and I still had a relationship with Tampa from my years there.  Jay Feaster and I had a deal worked out.  The only thing that was going to stop that was if Golisano were to buy the Sabres.  I had already told The Hamisters I was switching to Tampa.  And it looked like they were buying the team.  When Golisano ended up buying the team I was surprised but had to give the affiliation a chance to succeed.  I had to…for WNY.  It was a tough call to Feaster but I just had to give it a chance.  Golisano was local and had resources.  Well, as it turned out his ownership group wanted to cut costs in every way.  I probably should have made the switch sooner than we did.”

LGA:  Did Golisano ever offer to buy the Amerks?

Donner:  “A serious offer was never made.   It really felt as though they wanted the Amerks solely as a marketing tool.  They needed the Rochester market for the Buffalo Sabres.  And it didn’t need to be that way.”

LGA:  We read about Amerk debts in the paper.  Is it true Curt Styres paid those off?

Donner:  “Yes, he cleaned up some operation payables.  And they were never to the extent that were speculated.  Most AHL teams were in similar situations…or worse. ”


The finale, part IV, should be online tomorrow……

2 thoughts on “Steve Donner Interview – Part III”
  1. Hey Eric,
    Super nice interview. Glad to see all that info get out. Always liked Steve. He lived in the same apt bldg as I did[circa 1998-2000] and was very approachable. As a side note, Leggio lived across the hall during his first year here. Anyway, keep up the good work.

    Btw, are you doing the tweeting for the @LetsGoAmerks account? Just asking.

  2. Yep. I’m tweeting for the LetsGoAmerks account. Sorry I didn’t respond earlier, but I don’t do a good job staying on top of things like Keith did. Thanks for the compliment on the interview. I wanted his side to get out.

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