WNY ATHLETICS...It's a labor of love for high school sports.
by Jerry Sullivan
photos by Andrew Miller
There’s no lack of opinions inside Western New York Athletics. But one thing the folks all agree on is that the high school sports website is a labor of love.
It’s the expression of one man’s abiding passion for sports and the media. As a kid, Frank Wolf dreamed of being a sports journalist. He remembers helping an uncle deliver the old Courier Express when he was 6 or 7. Later, he had paper routes for the Buffalo News and Tonawanda News.
Wolf, the owner and co-founder of WNY Athletics, remembers listening to Art Wander, who was a local radio icon at WGR in the early days of Buffalo sports radio in the 1990s.
“All the time,” Wolf recalled. “I loved it. I’d probably call Art every day.
Wander had an acerbic regular caller, Mr. Negative, who would open by calling Art ‘Little Archie.’ Wolf, who went by the handle ‘Franny from Fredonia’, once tried the Little Archie salutation and aroused Wander’s ire.
“He laid into me,” Wolf said, chuckling at the memory. “‘How dare you insult Negative or try to copy him!’ I couldn’t talk back, I was laughing so hard. He beat me up for a good two minutes, but I thought it was hilarious.”
Frank, a 1993 Kenmore West graduate, longed to become a voice in local sports radio. But he never realized his dream of studying at Buffalo State. He revived the radio club at Erie Community College (“the audience was the cafeteria”), but left college and started a career in business.
In 1997, Wolf went to work for a family friend in the trucking and logistics business and eventually opened up his own agency which has turned out to be quite successful. But he still had that passion for sports media. He did a little writing on the side. In 2011, when then-president Ted Black opened the Sabres press box to bloggers, Frank launched his hockey site, FromThe300Level.com.
He wasn’t very popular with the other bloggers. But Wolf made friendships with some of the regular writers. He got close with Dave Ricci, a veteran scribe with a similar passion for high schools. When Ricci lost his gig with the Tonawanda News, Frank asked if Ricci would write for his website, which he was planning to transform into a high school sports vehicle.
“I really wanted to start doing stuff that was more meaningful,” Wolf said, “which was high school sports”.
In 2016, Western New York Athletics was born as a website (under 300 Level Media). Things were raw at the start, of course. Wolf had Ricci to write stories. He brought in a bright, promising Buff State student named Francis Boeck. Maybe Frank saw some of himself in the kid. Boeck is now executive director for the site and the driving force for the website.
Wolf said the high school coaches and athletic directors were very welcoming. The late Dick Gallagher, who was the patriarch of high school football, had ceased publishing his weekly tabloid after three decades, though he was still active doing TV coverage for Channel 2.
“I’d see Dick at games,” Wolf said. “I didn’t know him well enough to know how he would treat me, or if he would welcome me on his turf. In high school football, he was king. He couldn’t have been more embracing.”
Gallagher once described his youth sports work as a labor of love. That surely was a bond with him and Frank, who brought him on as a contributor for the site. When Gallagher died in 2020, the story on WNY Athletics called him “one of the greatest men to walk the Earth."
When Gallagher was writing for the football page for the website at Channel 2, he struck up a friendship with Tom Prince, the station’s digital sales manager at the time. Prince, a prominent force in youth baseball, ran the Southtowns travel league for years and was formerly director of baseball in Orchard Park.
“Dick and I would meet on my lunch hour almost every day and just talk football,” Prince said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we do it for baseball?’”
Prince took the idea to management, which lacked the resources for baseball. He said he’d do it for nothing. You know, the labor of love thing. For the next two years, Prince produced stories for a high school baseball page at WGRZ.
Then, in 2017, Prince got an attractive offer to return to pharmaceutical sales, one he couldn’t turn down. He offered to continue doing baseball for Channel 2, but the lag time was too great. He called WNY Athletics to offer his services.
“I called Frank and said, ‘You know my baseball stuff, do you want it on the WNY site?’ He said, ‘Are you serious? I said, ‘I’ll do it for you.’”
Prince has been helping WNY Athletics ever since. He’s president and on-air talent, versed in all sports. He worked to master all aspects of the video operation, a guy “who could do anything you possibly needed.”
He takes compensation only when WNY Athletics streams live events for the NFHS Network, which streams high school sports and events around the nation.
“It’s a passion I have for these kids,” Prince said. “Granted, it’s WNY Athletics, not Channel 2 or 4 or the Buffalo News, but it’s something a kid can send to a college coach and say ‘I’m being recognized.’
“It’s getting bigger and bigger to where high school coaches tell us you do more than the Buffalo News does. The biggest difference is, everything we do it face-to-face.”
Streaming games live has become the bread-and-butter for WNY Athletics as the site evolves. Stu Boyar, a fixture at high school games during his time at Channel 2, is now doing live broadcasts. The national site hires them to do sectional championships. In early June, WNY Athletics had a large team in Binghamton, broadcasting all the state baseball title games for NFHS Network.
At the 2018 state hockey championships, Wolf ran into Tim Gardner, who was doing video for Sweet Home, his alma mater. Gardner began doing video for Wolf soon after, working for various high school sports.
Gardner, a man of many talents, is an assistant football and baseball coach. He is the chair of the Town of Amherst Youth and Recreation. He was ideal for WNY Athletics as it made its mark in streaming live sports events.
“Tim Gardner comes along and he’s a whiz with the graphics,” Wolf said. “The product you see now is pretty much Tim’s baby. It’s our cameras, our audio and everything else, but Tim’s putting it together in ways we never thought possible.”
Wolf recently brought in Gardner full-time for the trucking logistics company. He said Tim spends a lot of time working for the website. He’s the one who redesigned this website. Like everyone involved with WNY Athletics, he also puts in a lot of time at high school games for little financial reward.
“Mostly volunteer,” Gardner said. He agreed that it’s like school teachers bringing home work. “Most everything we do is to get the kids recognition.”
For the love of the game.
“Everyone is there because they want to make a difference in the community,” Wolf said, “and it’s a large community. High school sports, we go from Albion all the way to Buffalo, all the way up to Newfane, down to Olean and Clymer.
“The NFHS (Network) comes along in 2018-19 and says we want you to start streaming playoffs, all the Section VI playoff games you can do, we want them, and they’re paying us to do them. That was a game-changer for us.”
Wolf said the logistics business funds about 60 percent of the costs of WNY Athletics,” he said. He said it used to be 100 percent, so things are looking up.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Wolf said. “Obviously, we would love more help from the business community. That’s a big thing. They need to know this is not a money grab for us. All of us have our full-time jobs, and we’re happy in our full-time jobs.
“This is extra. This is us leaving our families on a Friday or Saturday night when we could be going to a family picnic or something. Last Sunday, we’re out doing a Little League baseball game, two of them, in Lewiston.”
In a way, they’re carrying forward the passion and commitment of Dick Gallagher, a Buffalo Hall of Famer who always put the needs of the children first and wanted his labor of love to live on after his death.
“One hundred percent,” Prince said. “Frank and I both promised Dick we could keep a lot of things alive for him. One was his banquet. This guy put a banquet together and he didn’t want to see it go by the wayside, neither did the coaches.”
Football was Gallagher’s main passion. It’s the core of the WNY Athletics mission. But recognizing kids in all sports is the goal. In early June, WNY was there when Depew won a state baseball title in Binghamton. Prince said it was inspiring to see a crew of about two dozen people from the website gathering at a Vestal restaurant for a few drinks after a long, rain-delayed first day of games.
Wolf said they still have a long way to go, but they’ve come a long way in the last six years or so. How can a labor of love possibly fail, after all?
“When we started live-streaming and building that production, I thought, ‘OK, we’re on to something here’,” Gardner said. “Because it’s not going to go away.”