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Despite Sabres’ upgrade in talent, attendance levels lagging

Hockey is Joe Short’s game of choice. He has traveled to see the Bills play in two Super Bowls, but he’d much rather attend a Sabres first-round playoff game. Despite his love of the sport, his Sabres season tickets have gone unused four times already this season, five counting the time he went to a game but never reached his seat.

Louie Gott is a Buffalo comedian whose nighttime gigs often conflict with the puck drop. The season-ticket holder figured he’d easily get rid of his seats whenever he was cracking jokes, but the lack of takers is no laughing matter.

“It’s weird that I haven’t even been able to give them away at points,” Gott said this week.

Short and Gott aren’t alone. Though the Sabres boast an impressive 16,000 season-ticket holders for their 19,070-seat arena, empty seats show hundreds if not thousands are staying home nearly every game. Vacant rows in all four corners prove fewer people are buying tickets, too.

Despite the arrival of players who have put an end to the suffering era, Buffalo’s attendance (which is totaled by tickets distributed rather than tickets used) has dropped through 19 home games. While it’s not a big slip – 18,245 this year compared to 18,324 last year and 18,402 in 2013-14 – it’s still surprising given the rise in competitiveness on the ice.

Michael Gilbert, the team’s vice president of public and community relations, issued no comments on behalf of Sabres President Russ Brandon and John Sinclair, the vice president of tickets and service.

The Sabres are filling First Niagara Center to 95.7 percent capacity, which ranks 19th in the 30-team NHL. The reasons for empty seats range from scheduling conflicts to the falling Canadian dollar to pricing to not wanting to sell to unruly fans through the secondary market, but a common cause is lack of entertainment.

“Whenever I have a game to go to I’d rather just give it away to someone else,” said Hamburg’s Chris Schmidt, who splits a season-ticket package and picked five games. “So far I have given away two of them to other family free of charge because I felt like there were better things to do.”

Like Short, Schmidt appears to be the NHL’s desired customer. He and his family have had season tickets for years. He still skates in a recreational league once a week. He’s attended two Sabres games this season, a 4-1 loss to Tampa Bay and a 3-2 loss to Nashville, and he walked away unimpressed by the sport itself.

“Both of them were just incredibly boring,” he said. “The whole time I was sitting there I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ It’s more of a displeasure with the actual NHL product rather than the Sabres.”

The league has changed since the Sabres sold out all 41 games of the 2006-07 season. Buffalo scored an NHL-best 308 goals to help the league average 5.89 goals per game. As the NHL hit its Christmas break Wednesday, it was averaging 5.31 goals per game.

The Sabres, who added forwards Jack Eichel, Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly and others during the offseason, rank 27th with an average of 2.29 goals.

“I actually looked into season tickets this year,” said Tonawanda’s Brian Miller, who instead has yet to attend a game. “Watching the first few games on TV, even though we have more talent and we’re much more competitive, it’s not any more fun to watch, quite frankly.

“It seems like they’ve gotten back to the clutching and grabbing and tackling and obstruction. You’re not letting your players play. You’ve got guys out there like Eichel and Kane that can freewheel and play, and they’re not allowed to.”

Told of the opinions of Miller, Schmidt and others who’ve avoided games, the NHL countered with its own studies.

“Your sampling is not consistent with the research and fan polling that we have done this year, including as it relates to scoring,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said via email. “The quality and attractiveness of the on-ice product is something we watch and monitor constantly and we are always seeking to make the game as entertaining as possible (as are our clubs). That leads to changes being made to the game when and as necessary, including even this year with the adoption of three-on-three overtime and the introduction of the Coach’s Challenge.

“In short, we are very satisfied with the current state of the game.”

Arena lacks energy

On game nights, a lack of enthusiasm is noticeable inside First Niagara Center. While the fans passionately explode when given reason, the opportunities to cheer aren’t extensive.

“The problem for me is there is no bonus or added excitement sitting in the arena compared to my couch,” said Jeff Hansen of Hamburg. “The arena is quiet and boring. There is no energy, no chanting, no yelling.

“People are so busy now if we are going to go to the games we need to be entertained. This NHL product just isn’t doing it, and the Sabres are not doing anything to help the situation. Good young exciting team, games are great to watch, but the arena experience just isn’t worth anything right now.”

Even the marquee matchups fail to light a spark. Patrick Kane and the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks came to town Saturday for one of the Sabres’ two platinum games this season. The environment was raucous at the end with two goals in the final 3:20 of regulation, but the lead-up was lackluster.

“So quiet in here. Feels like church,” CSN Chicago writer Tracey Myers tweeted during the game. “Doing the noise meter here in Buffalo. This is not a good day for a noise meter.”

Said Gott: “There’s been reasons for us to go down there with excitement, and I got there and was disappointed. I was like, ‘This could have been the day that it turned around, and it still didn’t happen.’

“I don’t know where we lost it. I know they’re trying to do a lot with the in-game presentation, but sometimes it just comes off so forced that it actually turns the crowd off. The whole ‘pump up the noise’ stuff is so forced that it’s almost counterproductive. It’s just a much different environment than it was.”

Circus vs. sporting event

Short, who has held season tickets since the days of Memorial Auditorium, used to sit in the Blues and watch the games. Hockey was the main event. Now it’s just part of it.

“It’s more of a circus than a sporting event,” said the Tonawanda native. “These stadiums are so much fun. The two guys who sit in front of me, they’re rarely in their seat. They’re younger and they’re at the bar just having a blast. It’s not so much the hockey game anymore.”

Short has experienced it himself. On a day he wasn’t using his season tickets, he was taken to the game by an acquaintance in the 200 Level.

“We spent two periods at a tableside arrangement near a bar in a corner, and we didn’t spend much time in our seats at all because it was a great setup,” he said.

Spending time at the bar, of course, means spending money. While the Sabres have some of the most affordable tickets in the NHL, there’s always the ancillary costs of parking, refreshments and souvenirs.

“I couldn’t wait for the new era, but for me it’s a matter of finance,” said Christian DeGraff of South Buffalo, who has not attended a game. “The cost of these games hasn’t gone down during the ‘tank years,’ they’ve only gone up. And in a way I get it. The talent and the facilities that are hopefully bringing this era to Buffalo all need to be paid for by someone.

“I know there are value games and deals, but nothing has worked out from a timing standpoint for me. I would love to go as many times a year as I could, but it’s just not in the cards right now.”

The Sabres have sold out just two of their 19 games compared to four during each of the previous two years, 11 in 2012-13 and 18 in 2011-12. The most obvious struggle is selling the upper corners. Their pricing structure could be the culprit.

For 21 of the NHL’s 30 teams, an upper-level seat in the corner costs less than an upper-level seat at center ice. Buffalo is in the minority. The Sabres, Chicago, Dallas, Edmonton, Montreal, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Toronto and Vancouver all charge the same for a corner seat as a center-ice seat despite a less-appealing view.

Buffalo has held several promotions to fill the corners – free tickets for students with an A average, $20 off with the donation of winter clothing or a turkey – but it hasn’t created sellouts.

Winning is typically the best remedy for any sporting ailment. The Sabres, who visit Boston on Saturday and host Washington on Monday, are 14-16-4. They are 3-1-1 in their last five games and have an opportunity to catch the attention of fans who’ve seen another Bills season end in disappointment. They can make the game and arena fun again.

“I’m very excited about the direction of the team and the amazing players that are starting to call Buffalo home,” DeGraff said. “Here’s hoping for many years where I can get to great hockey games.”