For a team that has more than 16,000 season ticket-holders, the Sabres sure generate a lot of chatter and a lot of complaints about ticketing. I've never completely figured out if they're really causing a lot of trouble in this area or if it's just par for the course in professional sports (although I do maintain the Sabres lag far behind most teams in benefits for longtime customers and simple things like giveaway items for all fans).
The latest maelstrom of discussion has broken this week with a letter to season ticket-holders that their accounts will no longer have paper tickets but will essentially be run off a swipe card, and Wednesday's announcement the team will be moving to "dynamic pricing" for individual sales.
While I don't particularly like either change, folks who don't get outside the 716 much need to understand the Sabres are not reinventing the wheel in these cases either. Both moves are becoming the norm in professional sports.
Here are a few of my thoughts:
-- Communication, communication, communication. It's going to be incumbent upon the Sabres to properly inform season ticket-holders with detailed instructions on how to manage their account -- and incumbent on fans to read and follow them. It's also going to be vital that the new My One Buffalo app that the accounts will run though does not have any early-season bugs. It's still August. Get the bugs out now, Sabres. The team's letter promises "a full tutorial" will be provided before season-ticket cards are mailed in late September. That's encouraging.
Large numbers of season tickets are split among multiple people. The potential for confusion is immense when people go to divvy up their seats. Many groups have annual ticket drafts to determine who gets what games. With no physical tickets to hand out, fans are either going to have to print them all on their own or quickly get up to speed on how to use the app.
Many baseball teams do season tickets this way through the MLB.com Ballpark app. I'm assuming the Sabres have followed such a model and the process will go seamlessly. Here's hoping I'm not assuming too much. Here's an example of how the Cleveland Indians work things. Click on the short video at that link to see an explanation.
-- I hate mobile tickets. Hate them. I like paper tickets. I collect and save them. Season ticket-holders often considered their full-color, hard-stock tickets a perk of their account and now that's another thing the Sabres have taken away. Single-game tickets in most places have pretty much gone to mobile or to print-your own. It's not right. It's not wrong. It just is.
-- My two-word thought on dynamic pricing: It stinks. But it's a scourge spreading throughout pro sports and it's finally here. If you're confused or disturbed by it, you're already using it for things like airline tickets, hotels and rental cars. Think of a plane going anywhere with 100 people on board: I bet there's dozens of different prices paid for the same coach seats based on when the person bought their ticket and how many seats were remaining when that purchase was made.
To show you an example, here is the link to the San Francisco Giants' dynamic pricing flow. It's done by Qcue, the same company the Sabres are using. Give it a look. See how the prices change based on seat location for different games, with opponent and day of the week a key factor.
During the Stanley Cup final in June, I went to a Giants game at AT&T Park. It was a Friday night game against the Dodgers and the pitching matchup was Clayton Kershaw vs. Johnny Cueto. I didn't buy the ticket until the previous night beause I didn't know if the Cup final would return West for Game Six. By then, prices were out of control on StubHub because it was a Kershaw game.
The night before the game, after filing my Game Five column on the Cup final, I sat in the Consol Energy Center press room in Pittsburgh and easily found a single club seat on the Giants' web site and took it. I don't remember the price exactly but it was in the $80-$85 range and StubHub prices for a similar seat were all $150-$200. When I got to the game, I asked a couple next to me in Giants jackets what they paid. They had paid $8 less than me and had purchased the seats in April. A guy behind me said he had bought maybe three weeks before the game and paid $4 less.
For a high-demand night (Friday) against a top opponent (Dodgers) with the added information of a Kershaw appearance and my late purchase, I paid the highest price. That's how dynamic pricing works. My feeling is the price should be the price, whether I buy the ticket in April or the day of the game. But that's now become old-school thinking.
-- Are lower dynamic prices possible? Sure, market forces could see prices drop in theory as a way for the team to sell their last few hundred tickets to a less desirable game (two that jump at me are Thursday, Oct. 27 vs. Minnesota and Monday, Nov. 21 vs. Calgary). The prices could drop in all levels for individual sales, not just in the 300 level. That said, remember, the team is expected to have more than 16,000 season tickets sold and that only leaves around 3,000 for individual sale. This isn't a baseball team with, say, 20,000 tickets to sell for each of 81 home dates.
The Sabres' new Tier 1 is essentially the old "Gold" variable designation while Tier 2 is the old "Silver" and Tier 3 is the old "Bronze". The prices aren't that much higher, only a dollar or two in spots. What's gone is the old "Value" designation, the one that got people in the door last year for as little as $37 for 300 Level seats. Tickets that went for $37-$62 now go for $49-$74 on the new Tier 3. It's the same story in the 100 and 200 levels but, again, there just aren't that many single-game sales available in those areas to make it a big cause for concern.
The 300s are another story. The Sabres overpriced the corners last year and had a hard time moving those tickets. Winning hockey could make that moot this year or the problem could resurface. The dynamic pricing will have to drop to reasonable levels to move those seats, although it seems unlikely anyone is getting the building anymore for under $40 a ticket. It all bears watching.