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Inside the Sabres: As ticket costs rise, fan satisfaction declines

I think Sabres season-ticket holders are getting shortchanged on a regular basis. I think the return on their ever-increasing investment pales in comparison to other professional sports teams.

But, to be honest, the Sabres don’t care what I think. I don’t buy season tickets.

So I asked people who do. Their thoughts:

• The Sabres don’t appreciate the fans and their loyalty.

• The lack of giveaways is disturbing.

• The arena experience is poor.

• The team fails to recognize the history of hockey in Buffalo.

• First Niagara Center and its bathrooms are dirty.

• The skyrocketing prices are near a saturation point.

• Special events like the defunct open practice are missed.

“Fan loyalty is taken for granted and they do a poor job of tailoring the game-day experience for their core fans,” said Brett Buda, a 29-year-old from Rochester who has had season tickets since 2005-06. “The franchise knows people like me care deeply about the sport and our team and won’t leave no matter what – and it shows.”

Clearly, the Sabres have a lot of room to improve if they want to please their 16,000 season-ticket holders. Of course, since the annual renewal rate hovers in the 95 percent range, there are plenty of things that make being a diehard worthwhile, according to fans:

• The renewed commitment to winning will cure many ailments.

• Live events trump watching on television.

• Although prices keep rising, they’re a value compared to other cities.

• The sense of community that comes from being a season-ticket holder is important.

• The playoffs are eventually coming, and season-ticket holders will be there.

“Knowing that I have a game that night or that week is what gets me through the workday, the lousy weather, the doldrums of the winter,” said Brian Wachowiak, a Hamburg native in his early 40s who remembers going to games as a 4-year-old. “As long as I can afford the tickets, I will keep them.”

Loyalty is a big thing for season-ticket holders. The biggest complaint in the call for comments is that the Sabres don’t appreciate that loyalty.

“Season-ticket holders should be rewarded for the amount of money we spend on tickets,” said Jill Hewitt, who has had season tickets for a decade. “Why aren’t there any milestone ‘gifts’ when a certain anniversary is reached? Say every 5 or 10 years? I know other teams do this. While I realize there are approximately 16,000 season-ticket holders, I also realize that the owner is a billionaire.

“The difference between fans that have held season tickets for one year versus 10 can only be felt in my wallet. I feel there should be some reward for loyalty.”

Other than a ticket, fans receive virtually no tangible bonus for being a regular. The Sabres have chosen to give back 2.5 percent of the season-ticket price in the form of a SabreBucks card rather than provide giveaways. A fan in 100 Level II gets $73.05. If the person has a fondness for a beef on weck and a beer, the rebate is gone during the opening weeks of the season.

“SabreBucks are a nice gesture, but they hardly make a dent in the extras you need or want to buy over the course of a season,” said Peter Morris, who has been a regular since the 1996-97 season. “Season-ticket holders should get more extras. How about a yearbook or media guide? A DVD of the past season’s highlights? Opportunities to buy exclusive merchandise? More season-ticket holder giveaways?”

Even the Sabres’ extremely rare giveaways are poorly planned. They’re handing out mini sticks to the first 5,000 people Friday for the home finale. There are 19,070 seats, so nearly three-quarters of the crowd will be left out on “Fan Appreciation Night.”

The absence of free stuff is in stark contrast to other teams. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who recorded their 400th straight sellout in January, have given out Marc-Andre Fleury bobbleheads, Phil Kessel mini sticks, Sidney Crosby air fresheners, magnets, calendars, tumblers, selfie sticks, two winter hats, sock penguins, workout bands, luggage tags and T-shirts this season.

Buffalo fans can qualify for a T-shirt through the “Sabres Fan Advantage” program, but zero remained at the 2,000-point level Saturday. Members get 50 points for coming to a game and 10 points for a concessions purchase.

While baseball has double the home games and needs more incentives to lure fans in, the San Francisco Giants have played to more than 99 percent capacity the last five seasons. Their schedule still includes a special event nearly every game. Some are as simple as “Irish Heritage Night” and “Union Night.”

Buffalo is filled with people who circle St. Patrick’s and Dyngus days on their calendars and have Ironworker tattoos. Celebrating them would distinguish a Tuesday game against Winnipeg from a Thursday game against Ottawa, especially in a league where the road team wears white.

“Every night should be fan appreciation night,” said Joe Short of Tonawanda. “My tickets have gone up 40 percent in five years, and the hockey has been hard to watch. Can $1 of my increase go to giveaways for kids? Make it more fun for the families.”

Family-friendly events used to include the annual open practice, skills competition and Sabres carnival. Those are long gone. When the Sabres introduced their new jerseys in 1996, the free practice in Memorial Auditorium was so packed that fans needed to sit in the aisles.

“Those were some of the most fun events, outside of the playoffs, that I have experienced as a fan of this team,” Hewitt said. “Fans would even be willing to pay for these things! The Sabres used to do an autograph session after one home game for a few seasons. I haven’t heard about that happening in years.”

Fans can live without free stuff if they feel they’re getting value for their dollar. Losing seasons combined with a stale atmosphere have made for a diminishing return.

“How difficult is it in 2016 to keep the bathrooms supplied with soap and paper towels?” asked Thomas Manney, a season-ticket holder for eight seasons from Canada who wants freshness in other areas of the arena. “It would be nice if the Sabres’ ownership would celebrate the team’s history rather than sponsors. We have all become used to passive sponsorship-like signs on the boards, but does it have to be so invasive at every Sabre game? It isn’t this bad in Toronto or Montreal.”

While advertising isn’t going away, it could at least be made interactive. At Cleveland Cavaliers basketball games, fans are immersed in activity from the moment they walk through the gates. During a game in January, Our kids made signs with Cavs stencils, had their faces painted, watched a marching band, compared their height to LeBron James and the size of their feet and hands to Kyrie Irving, saw Cleveland legend Larry Nance sign autographs and received noisemakers – all before getting a drink or going near the seats.

Buffalo has added music to the atrium and Sabretooth is available for photos, but walking past a picture of Craig Ramsay doesn’t match the fun of an interactive game or display. The intermission replays are a plus, but reading “Make some noise” on the scoreboard can’t match making noise for good reason.

“The game presentation is embarrassing,” Buda said. “This team isn’t just bad, they’re dreadfully uncool. Our video board entertainment rarely has anything whatsoever to do with hockey.

“There is no sense of history inside the arena for a 46-year-old franchise. We present ourselves like an expansion team.”

Keeping the faith

The Sabres’ recent hike in season-ticket prices was disappointing to many, and so was the absence of reasoning behind it.

“I don’t like that my prices have been going up about $2 a year since Terry Pegula took over,” Wachowiak said. “I understand that they were probably way too low to begin with. I just worry about them getting to a price I can’t justify.

“When Tom Golisano took over, my seat was $21, and next year it will be $37 – almost double in 13ish years. I understand the revenue-sharing rule. I just don’t understand why the Sabres need it anymore.”

Teams that receive revenue sharing need to keep their ticket prices above 75 percent of the league average or give the NHL a “three-year business plan to establish a framework for improving its financial performance.” To see how the Sabres compare in pricing and increases, I selected three teams at random: a large-market club (Los Angeles), a nontraditional market (Carolina) and a northern hockey hotbed (Minnesota).

Here are the season-ticket prices for a seat in the lower bowl above the faceoff dots in 2010-11 and 2015-16:

• Buffalo has gone from $51 to $67, an increase of 35.1 percent.

• Minnesota has gone from $71 to $78, an increase of 9.9 percent.

• Carolina has risen from $71 to $88, an increase of 23.9 percent.

• Los Angeles has jumped from $84.50 to $126.50, an increase of 49.7 percent.

The four teams are closer in price for a seat in the upper level at center ice:

• Buffalo has gone from $29 to $36, up 24.1 percent.

• Carolina has gone from $30 to $38, up 26.7 percent.

• Minnesota has risen from $43 to $47, up 9.3 percent.

• Los Angeles has jumped from $27 to $49, up 81.5 percent.

During that five-year span, the NHL salary cap has risen 20.2 percent, from $59.4 million to $71.4 million.

So far, the season-ticket holders have absorbed the hits. They would just appreciate if a few bonuses came along with them.

“When we bought our season tickets we didn’t really have any expectations about things the Sabres would do for their fans,” Manney said. “For us it was enough really to watch as many games as we do from ice level.

“However, having said that, we are dismayed by the continual raising of prices every year, especially after years of poor hockey and wasted money from games we didn’t attend. We will renew again because we have faith that the rebuild shows promise and we may again see consistently exciting hockey. No doubt the Sabres hope the great majority of their season-ticket base thinks the same way and antes up the increase.

“There are some things the Sabres can do in return for fan loyalty.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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