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Front office learns lesson on ticket prices

OTTAWA -- Empty seats for back-to-back home games against Toronto and Montreal. Full houses assured weeks ahead for visits by Carolina, San Jose and Anaheim.

So what gives at HSBC Arena? It's the vagaries of the Buffalo Sabres' variable pricing plan. Specifically, the team's new platinum pricing level, which apparently kept fans away from the last two home games against normally prime opponents like the Maple Leafs and Canadiens because of sticker shock. Platinum prices for non-season ticket holders ranged from $78-$233.

"I would say we were probably too aggressive doing this," acknowledged Sabres minority owner Larry Quinn. "It's pretty simple. Our gold pricing has generated as much revenue as our platinum so obviously [platinum] is not priced right. That's the bottom line."

Wednesday's visit from Toronto drew a crowd of 17,355 -- more than 1,300 shy of a sellout and the team's lowest figure since 16,909 saw a game against Philadelphia on April 7, 2006. Friday's win over Montreal was more than 500 shy of a sellout at 18,161.

The team set the new platinum range this year for the three Toronto visits and Friday's Montreal game and is 0 for 3 on sellouts so far. Season ticket prices range from $20-$80 while individual purchasers have prices set at five levels (platinum, gold, silver, bronze, value). The biggest class is silver, where 15 games go from $57-$132. The Sabres have 13 sellouts so far and all but the Toronto game has drawn at least 18,000.

"We're going to push the envelope from time to time with ideas," Quinn said. "When we talked about platinum, we were saying, 'What's the [price] ceiling?' Well, I think we've found out. I don't know if we blew it but it didn't work out as we thought either. But that's OK.

"[Boston owner] Jeremy Jacobs was putting pressure on us saying our prices weren't high enough. You never know how high the market can go unless you test the top end."

Economics played a big issue in the Sabres' platinum struggles as the Canadian dollar nose dived and the U.S. economy followed suit after the pricing was determined. Quinn said the Sabres offered some of the unsold seats at season prices to members of the team's Blue & Gold club and decided against offering rebates to people who had already paid platinum prices.

"We were not going to undersell people who bought tickets," he said. "We decided to take our lumps and deal with the empty seats. You have to preserve the integrity of variable pricing. If you set it and then discount it, then you have no credibility."

The Sabres dropped gold prices by about 15 percent heading into this year while bumping up the others. Quinn said the Sabres will keep platinum next season but will be reevaluating the price structure.

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Quinn said the Sabres could have a crowd in the 10-12,000 range for Portland's game against Albany in the arena Tuesday night. Nathan Gerbe returned to the Pirates lineup Saturday night after being sidelined with a concussion.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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