As he sat among staff members, trading ideas for a back-to-school promotion for the Buffalo Bills, Russ Brandon couldn't help flashing back to late nights in minor league baseball, where a front-office job meant cold-calling sponsor prospects in the morning, hawking group tickets in the afternoon and covering the field if it rained at night.
"Everyone in sports should work in the minor leagues," said Brandon, vice president of business development and marketing for the Bills. "You learn that when it rains, it's time to pull a tarp. No matter what you do during the day, no matter what your job description is or what you think your responsibilities are, when it rains, you pull tarp.
"I'm very proud of that experience."
It has taken Brandon, 34, only 12 years to go from an internship with his hometown Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings, a successful Class AAA baseball operation, to being the ranking executive on the Bills' business side, sitting beside owner Ralph Wilson at NFL meetings.
When Brandon arrived in Buffalo after five years in the Florida Marlins' organization — first in the minors, then in the majors — he found a franchise at odds with its own market. Coming off an unpleasant spat over stadium financing, the Bills had to sell $11 million in suites and premium seats to secure $63 million in public funding for stadium renovations.
The business community's initial response fell somewhere between a door slam and a call to the police.
But, working with well-connected New York bank CEO Erkie Kailbourne and several Bills executives, Brandon criss-crossed the region, building support.
The Bills made their deadline and got their renovations. They also created a client base that Brandon has nurtured, growing sponsorship revenue from $1.5 million in 1998 to about $11 million last year in a shrinking market that already is the NFL's third smallest.
Kailbourne opened doors. Brandon kept them that way.
The growth is most evident in Brandon's hometown, Rochester, where the Bills hold a preseason training camp that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has pointed to as a model for all franchises. The camp, held at Brandon's alma mater, St. John Fisher College, doubles as a corporate playground where sponsors can woo prospects and touch customers.
It also has knotted a long-dormant link between the Bills and Rochester, an affluent neighboring city that has flourished as Buffalo has fallen.
"Rochester is critical to the success of this franchise in this market," said Brandon, who saw a similar dynamic while working with the Marlins, who rely on customers and sponsors from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. "When we look at just Buffalo, the market is small. Too small. But you reach out to Rochester and to Toronto and across New York, and now where are we? That's the way we have to think here in order to succeed."
The Bills also must think creatively, as they did when they hatched bobblehead giveaways to spur ticket sales to three otherwise unattractive games this season. Giveaways are unheard of in the NFL, where sellouts are the norm. But after watching individual game tickets move slowly late last season, Brandon decided to attach an incentive this year.
It hasn't worked as well as he had hoped, but Brandon believes interest will increase as the games approach and fans get a look at the bobbleheads.
"In minor league baseball, you have to give fans a reason to come to the game — and frequently that reason is something other than the game," Brandon said. "We're doing some things here that will remind you of minor league baseball. I don't mind that. I'm proud of it.
"I truly feel it should be a prerequisite in our industry to work in the minor leagues. It not only provides a solid foundation, it also provides limitless boundaries so that you learn every aspect of the business side and, in my case, of the baseball side as well. You learn to articulate between both sides of the house. That's vitally important as you grow in this business."