The Noosphere

“I’m not like you. I’m not. I’m not. All the things you do, I do a better version of all those things.” — Louis C.K., Live at the Beacon Theater

This is a comedian making a joke about flying first class and dismissing the fake guilt that comes with telling stories about it. Louis C.K. has made a lot of money over the last few years, and there’s still a remarkable authenticity to his act because he’s incredibly aware of how abnormal his life has become as he’s found success in his career. This is an incredibly rare ability for a person of wealth. It’s probably going to keep him rich for a very long time.

I don’t understand rich people and, because fiscal mobility is basically a myth, I never will. I also know that rich people don’t understand normal people like you or me. They think they do, but at a certain point a person can acquire enough wealth to lose contact with ordinary people and normal things. Once mortgage payments and credit card debt and public schools for your children are a thing of the past, you start wondering how many horses and sports teams you can buy. It’s easy to lose track of everyone else’s reality.

During the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sabres’ $172 million HarborCenter complex on Saturday, Sabres owner Terry Pegula compared himself (third graf here) to Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs when he adjusted his timeline for winning a Stanley Cup in Buffalo. Despite his Delaware North company calling Buffalo home, Jacobs isn’t well-liked among Sabres fans after a reported negotiation tussle with Ryan Miller during the NHL lockout. He also, well, owns the Boston Bruins.

Jacobs is an interesting foil for Pegula because of what we know about the Delaware North king and what we don’t know about the energy tycoon in charge of the Sabres. Last month, Boston Magazine had an extensive piece about a Florida land dispute between Jacobs and another wealthy man named Mark Bellissimo. The fight is over dressage. Fancy horse shows in layman’s terms. Former presidential candidate and noted rich guy Mitt Romney got plenty of flack for having an Olympic-caliber horse named Rafalca, but at least he wasn’t funding small-time political campaigns to help determine which rich guy runs the stables in paradise.

Three days after the Wellington council approved Bellissimo’s plan, the Jacobs-owned corporate entity Solar Sportsystems donated $100,000 to a group called Taxpayers for Integrity in Government—essentially, a Jacobs-controlled PAC. Its focus was the March village-council elections. As Lou put it to me, “We had a slate of candidates who were supportive of our position.” The candidates were Bob Margolis, for mayor, and John Greene and Matt Willhite, for village council. In the following weeks, Solar Sportsystems gave another $400,000 or so to Taxpayers for Integrity in Government, as well as $93,920 to the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, which was active in the race on the Jacobs candidates’ behalf. And finally, Jacobs family members and related interests in Buffalo made about $35,000 in donations of their own directly to the campaign accounts of their favored candidates. Add it all up and, at the same time that Jeremy Jacobs was gearing up for the National Hockey League’s impending player lockout (during which he’d emerge as one of the ownership group’s most aggressive hardliners), he led the charge on more than $625,000 in political donations in a small Florida village. (In Boston, City Councillor Ayanna Pressley spent $190,000 on her most recent campaign.)

The whole thing came down to a personal disagreement between two people of means. The Jacobs family loves dressage and has respect for “the game” and all that. Bellissimo wants to make money off of a market inefficiency within the sport. The most interesting thing going on here is that, for Jacobs, this is a leisure activity. It’s business for Bellissimo, but now it’s personal for both.

The typical arc here is simple: Rich people make money off of less rich people, then like to enjoy themselves in areas where the poors aren’t allowed. The problem is that Bellissimo wants to make money off of a rich man’s good times. It’s as much a personal vendetta as it is a minor culture clash that’s spilled over into how the town itself is constructed. And who is allowed in.

A particular flashpoint came in 2010, when Bellissimo contracted out the center to a promoter staging a concert by the hip-hop artist Akon. “That didn’t go over too well,” said Mason Phelps, a former equestrian who today serves as a Jacobs family spokesman in Wellington. “Nor did we want to attract the kind of people the Akon concert would attract to this community…. The people that go and listen to and like Akon are not Wellingtonites. It’s just a different crowd of people. I don’t mean to sound like a snob, but this is a fairly upscale community, and we don’t need to bring the low- and middle-income hooligans into town and have them all of a sudden say, Wow, good pickins’ out here.”

I’m sure you’re shocked to read that wealthy white people don’t like hip hop and the detestable scallywags who listen to it. And while I’m not positive what “pickins'” Phelps is referring to here, any guess I have does not shine a particularly positive light on his worldview. This is not an incitement of Jacobs, or even who he employs. This comes down to the fact that rich people want playgrounds where the walls are high enough to keep the rest of the world out. No matter how they make their money.

At the HarborCenter groundbreaking on Saturday, Pegula suggested that Buffalo mayor Byron Brown and team president Ted Black switch last names. Brown, of course, is African-American.

“I’m a little confused,” Terry said next. “I’m sitting on the stage between Mayor [Byron] Brown and Ted Black, yet I look over there, and I’m wondering, is something backwards here?”

That one went over like a slap shot to the face. There was a stunned silence, and then some uncomfortable laughter. Pegula finished with a lame comment about Brown and Black, the Sabres’ president, starting a law firm.

It’s a poor joke. Racial insensitivity without vitriol, but it does highlight a disconnect between Pegula’s perception of what is acceptable and what isn’t. He doesn’t make public comments often and doesn’t understand the role media plays in all this just yet. First he thought they were supposed to be boosters. Then he confided in them after a poor game on the road. Now he’s shutting everyone out unless there’s a pile of dirt to overturn. It’s all a work in progress, much like his ownership of the team itself.

Terry Pegula is not a racist. I’m not saying he is. I’m saying I wouldn’t take his–or any incredibly wealthy man’s–advice when it comes to my leisure activities. Pegula is wrong to think the local media anywhere should cheerlead for anything. He’s been wrong about that since day one. He has converted an incredible amount of hope into sympathy for two years of failure, while he’s skirted criticism and questions and even revealing a basic understanding of what he did to make all that money.

Meanwhile, he has quietly spread his influence in a variety of places. Pegula essentially donated a Division I hockey program to Penn State and helped keep its football coach in town. Despite all his involvement with the Nittany Lions, no one managed to find out what role he played in the Joe Paterno saga.

Pegula lobbied in favor of hydrofracking in New York State after he purchased the Sabres, which has seen little real discussion. Ask a fan about booing, though, and they can tell you what each Pegula daughter has to say about what fans do while they’re in the stands.

Steve Ott twitterfighting with reporters about booing or licking a visor doesn’t matter. They’re distractions from the failures the Sabres have experienced on the ice and symptomatic of some of the goodwill that’s evaporated in the two years since Pegula took over. They’re a chance to find some fun in a leisure activity that’s grown increasingly frustrating over the last six years.

Sports are the playground of all people. The rich men own the teams and get to dig in the sandbox for a bit, while the fans find reasons to hope and waste the idle hours and what disposable income they have. If the games are good, you tend not to worry about what’s happening outside the field of play, but lately it’s become harder and harder to ignore. With stadium subsidies in the hundreds of millions and owners getting more and more involved politically, there’s plenty to ponder beyond stats and box scores. Sports can help important people have a real impact on our actual lives.

Two years ago, Terry Pegula stood in the First Niagara Center atrium and told everyone his goal was to win a Stanley Cup. He talked about being a Sabres fan, and cried at the sight of Gilbert Perreault. Fanaticism in the owners’ suite has not helped this franchise so far. Pegula is not one of us. He’s a man with a net worth of $3 billion who is as close financially to fans in Section 323 as the Marcellus Shale is to Neptune.

He will turn a parking lot into hockey rinks and hotels to make even more money, and we will be grateful for it. A shovel in the sandbox. I can’t wait to see the finished product, which should be here well before Pegula accomplishes his goal of winning a Stanley Cup. Right now it’s clear Pegula the businessman can get more done than Pegula the owner. It’s also clear both are still getting the benefit of the doubt.

One Comment

  1. Mike

    I think it’s hard to get a true conception of wealth living anywhere in WNY, which is actually one of the most egalitarian places I’ve ever lived. This really isn’t a good thing though, because aside from a handful of enclaves, there are very few truly rich people residing in WNY in any significant way. And you need rich people for a variety of reasons.
    Almost a month ago now, I moved into a very rich area. I, myself, am not rich. There are obvious benefits – it’s beautiful here. The local schools are wonderful. But one need only look at the waterfront houses here and realize that that’s something you’ll never have.
    Having had lots of contact with rich people in various settings, and having some experience with Wellington, FL in a professional capacity, Jacobs’ representative’s comments have a certain kind of logic. If you were rich and lived in Florida, you would probably think the same thing too. It’s amazing that people can occupy the same space and live in totally different worlds. In a way, rich people who are interested in absurd things like dressage shouldn’t be belittled for wanting to carry on a very old tradition that is cost prohibitive to 99.9 percent of the population. The problem comes when they actually think they are better than the hoi polloi. In my experience, rich people are either of this group, or completely nice, genuine, down to earth people who consider themselves fortunate but don’t make a big deal about it. I’ve been lucky enough to know more of the latter than the former.
    Pegula strikes me as of the latter type as well. I think you can tell he’s still the same nerdy, non-descript engineer he was 25 years ago at heart. But I think the problems he’s encountered so far speak more to that than anything else. He hasn’t been great at handling the human element. He compared finding a good draft pick to locating a promising oil field. Humans are a commodity in a sense, but they are a unique commodity, and to draw that comparison suggests that maybe he isn’t looking at building a sports organization the correct way.