This really didn’t start out as any sort of grand plan.
There was no strategy, no meeting, no spreadsheet or calendar.
The date was April 19, 1998, and the venue was what was then named Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo. It was the final day of the NHL regular season, and two neighbors and passionate sports fans living at the time in South Cheektowaga traded emails and then phone tag. “Hey let’s meet up at the Sabres game!”
Buffalo v Ottawa. Andrew and Peter, having a beer or two, talking sports and watching Dominik Hasek and the boys lose to the Ottawa Senators 2-1.
Little did we know that that event would be “Stop #1” on the joint quest to attend a home game of each of the (then) 121 franchises that play in the four major North American sports. And so, this past weekend we marked the 15th anniversary of the founding of the USRT, with a special celebration held Tuesday night at the Buffalo Bisons game at Coca Cola Field.
The actual plan was hatched 10 months later, in 1999. The Sabres were on the road in Tampa and in Florida as a prelude to the NHL All Star Game at the Ice Palace. Over too many beers and wings at a Buffalo themed sports bar, we began comparing who had been to what hockey arena. and to what MLB ballpark. The beers flowed and so did the ideas, and by the end of the night we had those place mats flipped over, listing names of teams and venues and cities and thinking this is all crazy and over the top and never going to happen. But on that night in January of 1999, the Ultimate Sports Road Trip was formally hatched. The rules were simple – we had to attend a home game of each of the teams in the NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB in their current and active venue. If a team moved to a new arena or stadium, or relocated to a different market, we had to do a do-over. When we hit the finish line, we could claim that we had seen each team play at a home game. Eight teams were already crossed off (although two of those eight were the Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium, so those would require do-overs).
We launched a web site. Initially, it was one of those one page thingys so that our families and friends could keep track of our schedule, but eventually grew into the voluminous monster you see today with profiles, thumbnailed photos, ratings, and delving into the minor league parks, arenas, Europe, college football and other things we’ve done to enhance the journey.
It took almost five years to complete the quest. We combined multiple visits on faraway journeys to save money and time and knock the teams off the to-do list. For example, in March of 2001 we traveled to the Pacific Northwest, started with the Vancouver Canucks and Vancouver Grizzlies (Grizzlies later moved to Memphis, requiring a do-over, get it?), then down to Portland to see the Trailblazers, ending in Seattle to see the Supersonics. The trip ended on Opening Day of the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. One trip, five teams, three sports, $218 r/t flight. That’s how we rolled.
It all came to an exciting conclusion on December 15, 2002 in Detroit. We took our families with us, and did the weekend celebration in the Motor City, culminating with stop 121, the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. There were a couple media appearances, the Lions flashed our names on their video board, and we initialed our “Good Book” for the final time and toasted our accomplishment.
What happened next was something we never expected. A story about our mission which ran in the sports pages of the Buffalo News went viral and hit the AP newswires. In the ensuing days and into the New Year, we were deluged with interview requests from around the country. It all culminated with a live appearance on NBC’s The Today Show, which was beamed across the country via a satellite uplink right from the zamboni entrance here at our downtown arena. Truly, there is something to be said about one’s 15 minutes of fame.
So what have we been up to since the finish line was crossed? Well, plenty. To start with, we have been back 30 “official” times for do-overs involving teams that have relocated and/or changed venues. The NBA added an expansion team, the Charlotte Bobcats, and that became the 122nd franchise in the four sports. We have also added minor league baseball, minor league hockey and college football to the mix. We can now count over 90 separate minor league baseball parks visited as part of our project. There will be more in 2013. Add to this 40 NCAA division 1 college football experiences.
And how about Europe. Three separate trips, in 2010, 2011 and this past February, to experience the true joy and wonder of big league soccer in the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga. We followed the Buffalo Sabres as they debuted their 2011-12 season in Helsinki and Berlin, and forged lifelong friendships with the folks in Mannheim, where Buffalo staged an exhibition game. Think we’re going to go back to Europe again? Hell, yeah!
We decided to commemorate the 15 years milestone at Coca Cola Field, because the Buffalo Bisons have been such an integral part of our success. Back in 2001, we showed up at their doorstep as “media”, representing a poorly constructed and unwatchable public access sports show. Yet they credentialed us. We met and made contacts with so many important people who supported us and helped us along. Fellow media members Mike Harrington and Dave Ricci played huge roles. Mike took an immediate shine to what we were doing and did two feature stories on the USRT in the Buffalo News; Dave gave us the “Media 101” orientation to how to be good reporters. When we signed on with Artvoice as their baseball columnists in 2004 (adding coverage of the Buffalo Sabres beginning in 2005-06), his advice was invaluable in our being effective freelance journalists. And speaking of 2004, just two months into the baseball season the team’s PR director had left, and a young assistant named Brad Bisbing became the new head media relations guy for the Bisons, thrown abruptly into the deep end of the pool. He’s still at the media helm at Bisons baseball, and in these past 10 years we’ve all sort of grown together in our jobs and our roles.
So what does the future hold for the USRT? The core part of all this are the 122 teams. For now, the next “official” visit doesn’t take place until fall of 2014, when the San Francisco 49ers move into their new home in Santa Clara, now under construction. Right now we’re also on the relocation watch for two franchises, the NBA Sacramento Kings and the NHL Phoenix Coyotes. If either or both move, we go see them in their new homes. The do-overs. And we’re constantly adding more minor league baseball and college football to the list of venue experiences.
We acknowledged three names in this article as people who have been helpful and supportive. But there have been more. Many more. And we wish we could list them all. Our families have been wonderfully engaged in our project, and our friends, fellow media members, contacts in other cities and throughout the world, other sports travel enthusiasts many who are actually crazier than we are, and representatives from the teams’ front offices have been remarkable. The friendships and fellowships we have built over these past 15 years have been tremendous. Thank you to everyone.
We are Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell. We write for Artvoice. We travel. A lot. Here’s to the next 15 years!
Follow Andrew and Peter on Twitter… @akulykUSRT and @pfarrellUSRT