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SABRE TURMOIL TOLL IS 8 PERCENT DROP IN TICKET TOTAL

The Buffalo Sabres' box-office numbers tell a tale that any fan could have predicted last fall.

Ticket sales are down significantly from last season.

The Sabres' average attendance this year is 15,294, down 8 percent -- or 1,335 fans per game -- from last season's franchise-record totals at Marine Midland Arena.

The main reason for the drop, of course, is the ill will generated from the team's turmoil-filled offseason. The Sabres knew when the season started they were going to take a hit at the gate.

"From a marketing standpoint, things didn't go well in the offseason, and it hurt us early in the season," said John Sinclair, Sabres vice president for ticket sales and operations.

"But it has definitely picked up," Sinclair said. "The way the team's playing now, I'm hoping people are thinking to themselves that this organization had a plan. It stuck to the plan, and it walked through fire with that plan, and it seems to be working. Obviously, the test will be how we finish and how we do in the playoffs."

The Sabres have sold out five of their last eight home games. But with seven home games to go in the regular season, there's no way they will make up much ground on last season's record average of 16,912. Last year's team sold out nine of its last 10 home games in the regular season.

It has been harder for the Sabres to sell out this year because of their lower season-ticket base.

Figures disclosed to The News show the team dropped from 10,234 season tickets last year to 8,634 this year -- a drop of 15.6 percent, or 1,600 tickets.

The Sabres say they have managed to minimize some of the damage from their attendance drop.

The team says ticket revenues are at virtually the same level as last season, thanks to the fact the team restructured pricing for sections at the Arena over the summer. That produced a more appropriate distribution of ticket prices from the front row to the top of the building.

The Sabres report that as of early last week, they had gross ticket revenues of $13,850,834. At the same point last year, the team reports, the ticket receipts were $13,856,885.

"The biggest reason is we restructured the building," Sinclair said. "We lowered prices in some sections, but we raised them in others, and we've been able to sell more tickets in those areas that we raised them."

The necessity for restructuring the ticket prices was apparent early last season. There were numerous games the first half of last year in which the upper deck of the Arena was completely full and there were many empty seats in the lower bowl. That's not the way it's supposed to work. The team decided there was too great a gap between one price and the next option in some cases.

For example, it raised the 200 Club Level season-ticket prices from $59 to $65, but lowered the Preferred Seating (at center-ice in the lower bowl) from $59 to $50. Many upper deck tickets went from $14 to $17 for season tickets. The sections directly behind the goals in the lower bowl went from $40 to $38 for individual games.

"The biggest increase (in revenue) we've had is in the 100 Level III (lower bowl, behind the goals)," Sinclair said. "We've sold a lot more of those this year than last year."

The restructuring, however, certainly has not made up for the loss of season-ticket holders or the fact there are fewer people spending their money in the building.

Season-ticket sales give the team money in the bank that collects interest all season. It also doesn't require spending money on in-season marketing, like individual-game sales.

All the marketing in the world, of course, probably couldn't have overcome all the negative public relations the team suffered over the summer. Given the fact the team said goodbye to its coach, general manager and captain from last season, an 8 percent drop in attendance probably isn't all that bad.

As Sinclair indicated, Sabre attendance has improved since December. Through the first 14 home games, crowds were down 14 percent, or 2,250 a game.

"Things started getting better once the team started playing better in December," Sinclair said. "We really picked up right before the Olympic break."

The Sabres have continued to offer ticket discount programs this season, including "Canadian at-par nights" the first four home games. However, Sinclair said the team has not had any more discount sales than it had last year.

"It's pretty much a wash. Prior to getting real hot last year, we had done a fair amount of discount programs, and it helped our attendance down the stretch."

The Sabres rank 17th out of 26 NHL teams in attendance with just three weeks remaining in the regular season. That's down five spots from last year. The fact Marine Midland Arena was new last season probably is one of the minor factors in the team's drop.

Montreal is leading the NHL in attendance, with an average of 20,702 per game. Detroit is next, followed by Philadelphia, the New York Rangers and Chicago. The 10th place team in attendance is Anaheim, at 16,871.

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