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Sabres New Mantra: “Suffering”

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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.

Suffering.

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”.

Suffering.

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.”


The first Sabres giveback is rolled out

SabslogoJust two days after the Buffalo Sabres announced that ticket prices for season ticket holders and single game purchasers will remain the same as previously announced last summer, the team has presented its first tangible “giveback” to its fans and customers.

The Sabres will be holding a “Fan Appreciation Sale”, which will be a 50% reduction in all merchandise at the Sabres team store at the First Niagara Center. The sale will begin during training camp and conclude at the end of the first home game at the arena. The store will also be open beyond its normal 10am-5pm scheduled hours whenever a team scrimmage or public practice is scheduled.

In a statement released to the media by the team’s public relations department, Sabres President Ted Black said, “Our fans showed tremendous patience and loyalty during the past few months. Nothing will erase the pain of a lockout and cancelled games but we wanted to give back to our fans in this way to get them excited for what is sure to be a fast-paced and thrilling 2012-13 season.”

While this gesture to the fan base is a decent one, the fact of the matter is the 15,500 tickets held by season ticket holders of record have been greatly inconvenienced by this work stoppage, and the Sabres front office seems to be doing little to address this issue, except to thump out their chests and congratulate themselves as to how few cancellations they suffered since last year (about 80 according to figures supplied by the team).

Consider this: last March season subscribers sent in hefty checks to cover their costs for rounds 1 and 2 of the playoffs. Those playoffs never happened. Many then rolled those dollars into their deposits for 2012-13 season tickets, and added payments throughout the summer to cover their sizable bills. Then came the lockout, and the option to either receive refunds or allow the team to hold the moneys and pay out 4% simple interest which would eventually be credited in the form of Sabrebucks. Those who opted for refunds got their partial checks or credits in dribs and drabs throughout the fall; the rest have had moneys tied up into their tickets for as long as ten months.

Add the latest outrage, which is beyond the team’s control. The news of end of the lockout is now in its 5th day, and as of 4PM Thursday the league has yet to unveil its 2013 schedule. Many season ticket customers split their seats among shareholders (disclosure time, I own 8 season tickets and the parsing out of my tickets on such short notice is going to be an absolute nightmare); others might have vacation plans or pending outings which might be on hold until home dates are revealed. Others sell off excess seats, especially those Leafs games to those Toronto fans who like to come here and watch their team lose. Commissioner Gary Bettman announced yesterday that the schedule would not be announced until the NHLPA formally announces its ratification vote. What that seminal moment has to do with the details of the schedule is anyone’s guess.

Bottom line: the team needs to do more. Thousands of season ticket holders representing 15,500 tickets, the financial cornerstone of the franchise, have been severely inconvenienced, yes emotionally, but certainly financially by having thousands of dollars per ticket being tied up in an accounting and payment jumble over the past 10 months. The half price t-shirt or jersey is nice, the apology by President Black heartfelt and sincere, and the “Thank You Fans” message which might once again appear on the ice, well, OK. But the customers who write the checks have been burdened, and will continue to be burdened in the coming days and weeks, as they have to make game night plans on a very short notice, receive their printed tickets at most likely the very last minute, then have to plan and distribute and put those tickets to good use.

Some other teams have leaked plans for dirt cheap season passes and free ticket for kids. Here’s hoping that Ted Black and his front office team evaluate this further, and can do a bit better as well.