A national research firm recently said Buffalo had the second-highest percentage of loyal fans in the National Hockey League. The Sabres will test that loyalty by once again raising ticket prices next year.
The team announced Tuesday that season tickets would increase an average of 4 percent over 2000-2001 prices. Prices at the box office are scheduled to go up an average of 8 percent.
That means the cheapest ticket in the house -- a season ticket in the upper rows of Level 300 -- will be $17 per game, up from the $5 it cost to buy the cheapest season seat in the old Memorial Auditorium in its final season of use, 1995-96.
The increase in that $17 seat from last year is only $1, however. The cost for the most expensive season tickets, in the 200 Club level, will go from $75 last year to $78 for the 2001-2002 season. The most expensive season ticket in the Aud's last season went for $48.
"There will be some fans that might seem disappointed," Sabres president Ron Bertovich acknowledged. But he said the price increase is a modest one that still leaves Buffalo below the league average ticket price.
"Last year, we were 19th in the league (out of 30 teams) in average," he said. "We've always said our goal was to be in the middle of the pack, and with the projections for this (coming) year, we'll stay constant at our present rank."
In fact, the Sabres might actually drop a few pegs in the rankings, according to Kurt Hunzeker, editor of the Chicago-based Team Marketing Report, which has tracked NHL ticket prices for the past 11 seasons.
The four percent average increase for season ticket holders "is probably going to be underneath the curve," he said, although he said at least one NHL team, the Phoenix Coyotes, will actually reduce their ticket prices next year "and a couple of other teams are toying with the idea."
The Sabres cited league sources as putting them at 19th in the league in average, but Team Marketing Report's rundown of NHL ticket prices last year actually had them at 23rd, just below the Coyotes and just ahead of the Washington Capitals.
Team spokesman Michael Gilbert said the discrepancy had to do with the differences in the way each of those sources compiles their figures.
The Sabres' average ticket price last year, according to Team Marketing Report, was $40.39. The New York Rangers had the highest average ticket price at $65.82, while the Calgary Flames were the low average at $32.86. (All prices are in U.S. dollars.) The league-wide average was $47.40.
The increases for season ticket holders will be small. At the 300 Level, which are the highest seats at HSBC Arena, the increase is only $1 per ticket. The increases in the 200 and 100 Levels were in the $2-$3 range.
The increase in seats bought at the box office was greater, ranging from a minimum of $2 to a maximum of $8. The most expensive non-season tickets last year went for $100 apiece. Next season, they will go for $108. The least expensive non-season seat, which was $21, will now be $23.
Fan reaction to the price increase ranged from understanding to anger. There was also some sarcasm, which was directed at team owner John Rigas.
"I think that ticket prices should be doubled so that the Sabres can make a profit and the Rigases can increase their combined wealth to $10 billion," said one posting on thesabresedge.com, a Web site for Sabres fans.
Mark Zampogna, the site's webmaster, predicted reaction will be more negative if the Sabres decide star goalie Dominik Hasek doesn't fit into their plans next year.
"If Hasek is gone, I don't think they have that safety net anymore," he said. "They're going to have to be a lot more entertaining or win a lot more games to get the same level of fan support they had with Hasek, especially with higher ticket prices."
The Sabres fan support, both in terms of their season ticket base and their average attendance, has remained fairly consistent over the past five seasons. They had 10,853 season-ticket equivalents (when partial season ticket plans are factored in with regular season tickets) in 1996-97, their first year at what was then known as Marine Midland Arena. That sunk to 8,773 the next year, but the team had lost popular coach Ted Nolan.
Average attendance in that season after Nolan's departure was 15,412, a low-water mark since the Sabres moved into their new building. Over the last three years, the Sabres' average attendance has stayed in the 17,000 range.
The Sabres sold 12,062 season ticket equivalents in 1999-2000, the year after they went to the Stanley Cup finals. That number dropped to 10,667 last year, which is nearly what it was in their first year in their new building.
Lewiston attorney Ed Jesella, a season ticket holder in the 300 Level, said the increase isn't that much, but he wonders if the Sabres are "reaching the point where they're going to have some discontented fans."
Many fans buy season seats because they guarantee a chance at buying seats for the playoffs, but a huge jump in the cost of playoff tickets this past season angered many longtime fans.
"If you bought those tickets, you probably spent as much money as you would have spent on your seasons all year," Jesella said.
Attorney Chris O'Brien, a season ticket holder for several years at the 100 Level, said he didn't think the price increases are "that outrageous. People understand that certain costs are increasing."
Bob Mollot, who has shared a season ticket with his father Alan for many years, said he wouldn't mind paying more if the Sabres showed they were serious about winning the Stanley Cup.
"During free agency, they go after nobody," said Mollot, owner of Fat Bob's Smokehouse restaurant.
Mollot said the cost of tickets has increased so much that he no longer can afford to go to every game: he said he sells nearly half of his season tickets to friends.
"If it wasn't for the fact that we have someone else to pick up the games, we probably wouldn't be season ticket holders," he said.