Let's get the literal answer to today's headline out of the way. Buffalo is from the French "beau fleuve", which means city of old buildings, greasy food and light traffic.
I'm thinking instead about what Buffalo means in sports. I like it when teams have reliable, continual identities; I like it even more when multiple teams in a city share those identities. It's not just something to like, it's a good thing for teams to have.
The Philadelphia Flyers have for the most part been known as a rough, brutish team for four decades. This helps them with their opponents, who can be more easily psyched out; the officials, who will only call so much; and the fans, who will form an opinion about them one way or another. As they say, in show business it's good to be loved or hated, as long as you're not ignored.
But where is Buffalo in this respect? Do our teams engender any emotions in anyone? Playing the Bills and Sabres largely has been, in a word, painless. This has not always been true but has been true more often than not in my entire life (41 years).
We've had a few runs of greatness (very good-ness?) when playing Buffalo would have been something other than just a game on the schedule. In the mid-1970s facing the Sabres would have put a certain kind of fear in a team, similar to what the 1990s Bills or 2007 Sabres would have done. We'd better be ready. The early-80s Bills and mid-90s Sabres were two of our few teams ever to garner a reputation for physical toughness and ruggedness.
But mostly we're pro sports pushovers. When you play us you may lose but it won't stick with you and it won't hurt. Going to play the Flyers or Bruins or Penguins is a gym workout of the tallest order. Facing Buffalo is sitting in the sauna.
If we ever achieved success in this way, to have our sports teams represent us proudly and properly, how would they do so?
Buffalo has long prided itself on its blue-collar ethos, even though we've become by definition a white-collar city. It's not our hard-working mentality that sets us apart though, or whether we're blue-collar or white-collar, or any other aspect of our collective personality.
What does set us apart is that we're small.
That's the difference between Buffalo and our rivals. Boston, Toronto, New York, Miami, Montreal, Philly -- the cities whose teams we compete with the most often, the most fiercely -- are all major metros. On Wikipedia's "List of North American metropolitan areas by population", they're all in the Top 20. We're #72, right behind Edmonton.
Every sports fan knows about the advantages of wealth. The more valuable sports teams are in the major markets. Media plays a monstrous role in sports and is only concerned with major-market teams. Top free-agents think about endorsements and opportunities away from sports, and those opportunities abound in the cities Buffalo faces off with the most often.
Good luck to us, eh?
We need to find a way to turn our relative small-town existence into a positive. Is there a way? I think there is.
We should strive to build relentless, effort-intensive teams that will try for every edge. We should aim to stand out as a city on the big boys' schedule that they dread -- not because the hotels aren't as nice as theirs but because playing Buffalo should be hell. If they think our city is rough, our teams should fall in line and be rough on them.
This mentality should be how the Bills and Sabres build identities -- ones they've lacked for the better part of their existences.
We're still trying to beat the big markets at their own game. Terry Pegula showed up in February 2011 and promised the moon. Free agency came and likewise we aimed for the biggest animal, Brad Richards. What we learned was that the Buffalo Sabres being willing to spend is only part of it. If Richards wanted Broadway, all the Terry Pegulas in the world still give us no chance.
I wrote last summer how our area's spaciousness and outdoor living helped the Bills land Mario Williams. I still think this can be a recruiting key for them. Williams, Kyle Williams, C.J. Spiller, Eric Wood, Stephon Gilmore -- they all have roots in the Southeast and here they feel they get a taste of home. Not everybody wants Gotham.But we need to recognize that we can't be Broadway. So let's instead be Farmville. Or, the back alley. It can work.
It's still sports. It's still about effort and emotion and passion, and at the very, very least our teams should be the gold standards in these areas. We should become a place where big-city teams can be outfought and outwitted. It should be our trademark. If it doesn't get us championships then it doesn't. But it should make us better than we are. And best of all it should make us proud.