When the Buffalo Sabres did their famed makeover of the team locker rooms and training areas two summers ago, the most noted space planning casualty was the press conference room. Gone was the spacious work area with podium space, ample seating and even a large standing area behind the camera bays for special visitors to stand and watch the proceedings. In its staid came a glorified nook, with a scattered few chairs and two folding tables in the back of the room for writers and photographers to unfurl their laptops and equipment.
So if the media clamors for a season ending press conference, then, hey. Why not? Cram as many people as possible into too small a space, turn up the hot television lights, shut the doors to cut off air flow, and let’s have at it.
Team President Ted Black, and his now apparent organizational equal, General Manager Darcy Regier, met with the press this past Monday to face the media and talk about the fortunes of the franchise. For the collective Buffalo community, it was not one of our prouder moments. Reporters from two media outlets in particular fired questions that were sniping, over the top personal, and prompted snarky and condescending replies from the oft composed Black.
As for Regier, his part of the discussion was to admonish the public, press and the team supporters that there would be plenty of “suffering” ahead as the team retools towards the eventual goal of bringing the Stanley Cup to Buffalo. He used the word repeatedly throughout the conference.
While few details were revealed as to the team’s plan for their head coach, keeping prized assets Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, or what the on ice game plan is moving forward, a great deal of discussion centered on the Sabres’ decision to raise ticket prices by 4%, an announcement that was made last Friday in conjunction with the team’s “Fan Appreciation Night”.
The Sabres repeatedly trump their robust season ticket base, their lengthy waiting list for season tickets, and their price structure, which remains in the lower tier of the league’s 30 NHL teams. All true.
What the team neglects to pay attention to is its own history and record when it comes to their fan base and ticket sales. It is a colorful story of ebbs and flows.
Buffalo began a sellout streak of games which began in early 1971, when the Aud capacity was still 10,429 seats. That streak continued for almost two decades even after a balcony was added to the arena. Fans would camp out on Terrace Street overnight for the opportunity to purchase scarce and precious tickets at the top of the oranges or in standing room. Being a season ticket holder back then was one of Buffalo’s ultimate status symbols. The front office had a profound sense of hubris and arrogance that there would always be a blindly faithful ticket buying public with lines out the door.
Then the Scotty Bowman period ended. Badly. The team went into a tailspin. And by the late 80s, tickets could be had in all price ranges.
The second ticket renaissance occurred in the 90s. The powerhouse Mogilny/Lafontaine offense ignited new interest in the team, which only grew larger when Ted Nolan’s “hardest working team in hockey” won the hearts of Sabres fans. Excitement over the new arena stimulated ticket sales, and by 1999, the Sabres’ last run to the finals, there were fistfights outside the arena over places in cue for playoff tickets, and the team was offering playoff tickets in exchange for season ticket commitments from customers.
It all fell apart. The popular Nolan was shown the door and got dirt kicked in his face upon his exit (by Regier, no less), then the team spiraled into scandal and bankruptcy. By 2003 the Sabres were playing in front of thousands of empty blue seats on any given night.
Enter Tom Golisano. His Managing Partner Larry Quinn slashed ticket prices, instituted a variable game pricing policy and deep discounts for season ticket holders. The team came out of the 2004-05 lockout fast, exciting, fun to watch and sales surged. While season ticket prices have creeped upwards four of the past six years, the overall pricing model remains in place to this day.
But what now? The dirty secret that nobody wants to talk about is that for the last few games this year Sabres tickets had a commodity value of near zero. People couldn’t give their tickets away.
And the ticket buying public here in Buffalo aren’t fools. They will support their team and shell out their hard earned dollars if they are given hope. Monday’s press conference, laden with anger, acrimony and snark, didn’t exactly help the cause.
Want 99% renewals, Sabres front office? Sell hope. Bring back Ted Nolan, or a guy like him. Announce defiantly that the losing is over. Now. Give your season ticket holders a new incentive that has a “wow” factor. 2.5% Sabrebucks no longer cuts it.
Unfortunately, the one huge lesson gleaned from Monday is “Suffering”. And for Sabres fans and their best customers, strip to the skivvies, grab one’s ankles, and exclaim, “Thank you sir, may I have another.”