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Kim Pegula discusses team culture change, passion of Buffalo Bills fans

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Owner says despite bad viral videos, Bills fans are among the smartest in all of sports.

Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the Buffalo Sabres in 2011 and the Buffalo Bills in 2014.

While there have been far more lows than highs in the couple’s first stint owning a professional sports franchise, and while there has been more frustration and heartache than successes so far in Western New York, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Qualifying for the playoffs and snapping the longest active playoff drought among the four major professional sports leagues will have that impact on a fan base and the Pegulas, like the fans, feel optimistic about their Bills moving forward.

Kim Pegula, president and co-owner of both the Bills and Buffalo Sabres, sat down for a thorough, hard-hitting interview with The Athletic’s John Vogl where she reflected on how the culture at One Bills Drive has changed since the Bills snapped their 17-year playoff drought, and why the YouTube videos showing Bills fans throwing each other through tables gives Buffalo fans an undeservedly bad reputation.

Even if the national media might not expect much from the Bills in 2018, the Pegulas are excited to see what improvements head coach Sean McDermott’s Bills can make this year. Kim, in particular, said that while many pundits felt the Bills should have been pleased just to qualify for the postseason, that wasn’t the case.

“I will tell you from a football staff standpoint, there’s not a whole lot different this season, [because ultimately, last year’s playoff appearance] is not the final result that we want. We don’t want to be just making it to the playoffs. I even think they’re a little bit more focused,” Kim Pegula said.

Much of the credit for the change in culture comes down to McDermott’s refreshing and focused approach to every aspect of coaching his team, Pegula said. McDermott, like the rest of the Bills, wasn’t satisfied in just reaching the playoffs once. Rather, that is the goal each and every year.

“I know people talked to [McDermott] about what it would mean to end the drought and all that, but when our staff saw it happen last year and felt it in our community, I think that spurred them even more to take that to the next level,” Pegula said. “I know ‘process’ is a word that Sean likes to use, but I think they’re like, ‘OK. We’re on the right path. We need to keep it going, keep it focused, stick with that process because we want that ultimate goal. We’re not happy. Can you imagine, if this is the reaction for one playoff game, can you imagine what the next levels are going to be?’ I see that in our coach.”

When it comes to the passionate members of Bills Mafia, Pegula said she hears all the time from Bills fans who are thankful that she and her husband purchased the team and kept the Bills in Western New York. The positive effect of making the playoffs has carried over to training camp, where Pegula says she has noticed an uptick in fans attending practice at St. John Fisher College.

“Even from our fan base here, I feel like they’re just enjoying it, whereas before there was a little bit of hesitation heading into the season. We’ve had more people at this camp this year than we’ve had previously, and I think it’s because people are having fun, whereas maybe in the past there was always this little asterisk of, ‘Is this going to be the year?’” Pegula said.

And what of the boorish behavior of some Bills fans, the ones who make national headlines by slamming their friends/fellow fans through tables in moves more meant for the WWE than NFL tailgates?

“I don’t think people realize how smart our fans are, you know? You can’t fool them. I remember going to another arena — I won’t name which one it is — and the game presentation was great because they were all cheering and everything. Well, how come they’re not cheering in our arena? Because our fans are too smart. I was like, ‘These [other fans] don’t even know what they’re cheering about! They’re just yelling ‘Shoot, shoot!’” Our fans understand. They’ll cheer and they’ll support when there’s a good play, when there’s effort,” Pegula said. “So the jumping on tables, setting themselves on fire, that stuff happens outside of our lots, but obviously that’s the viral things. Wherever we go, I hear, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys have such a great fan base,’ and the fact that they’re knowledgeable about football ... hopefully that will overshadow some of those things that go viral sometimes.”

You can read the entire interview on The Athletic with a subscription.