SBJ/July 15-21, 2013/Franchises

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  • Sabres fans keep faith and keep buying tickets

    Buffalo Sabres fans are not holding the franchise’s recent subpar performance on the ice against owner Terry Pegula or team management: The Sabres report that 98 percent of season-ticket holders renewed for the 2013-14 season, down just 1 percent from a year ago.

    The team additionally has decided to make more season tickets available. Capped at 15,400 last season, season-ticket availability will increase to approximately 16,000 next season at the 19,000-seat First Niagara Center, said Sabres President Ted Black.

    “We’re cognizant of the fact that our fans want to see a championship team, and it takes time,” Black said. “They’re placing their faith in us, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

    Despite the Sabres’ failure to qualify for the playoffs in the last two seasons, and a 4 percent increase in season-ticket prices for 2013-14, the waiting list for season tickets has grown to 3,000 — accounting for requests of more than 6,000 season tickets. Fans get a spot on the waiting list by making a one-time deposit of $100. They receive benefits such as priority to purchase mini-plans and individual-game tickets before public sale.

    Since there was little advancement from the list, the Sabres felt it was necessary to raise the cap on season tickets.
    “We want people to see that there’s movement on the list, but we’ve had so few canceled accounts in the last three years,” said John Sinclair, the team’s vice president of tickets and service. “Instead of waiting for cancellations, which we hope we never see, we thought it was fair to make more available.”

    A rendering shows HarborCenter, set to open in 2014, with First Niagara Center back left.
    Photo by: BILL WIPPERT
    The Sabres averaged 18,970 fans for their 24 home games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 regular season, ninth best leaguewide. Both marks are up from the 2011-12 season, when the team ranked 11th with an average of 18,550. The Sabres also finished second in the NHL to the Pittsburgh Penguins in local TV ratings for the past season, with a 9.46 average rating.

    It’s not all blue sky in Buffalo. Some fans have openly expressed their frustration via message boards with the team’s performance, and the Sabres have been criticized regularly in the city’s major newspaper, The Buffalo News. But there’s also consideration being given for Pegula’s larger plans for the team and Buffalo’s Waterfront district.

    HarborCenter, a $172 million multipurpose hockey and entertainment complex across from the First Niagara Center that is financed by Pegula, opens in September 2014. It will be connected to the arena by a pedestrian bridge. When the project is completed, the Sabres will be the only team in the NHL with its home arena and two additional rinks under one roof.

    “The project bolsters the community’s confidence in Terry’s ownership,” said John Koelmel, who was named president of HarborCenter on June 6. “Sabres ownership had been a revolving door, but Terry is showing that he is investing in the city. It’s an investment that’s more from the heart than the head, and people recognize that.”

    The Sabres’ recent ownership history includes John Rigas buying the team in 1998 only to be indicted on fraud charges in 2002 and the league subsequently taking control of the club. Tom Golisano bought the team in 2003 and maintained ownership until Pegula purchased the club in February 2011.

    Black, who joined the team soon after Pegula became owner, added that HarborCenter could help the Sabres develop relationships with prospective sponsors. The Sabres play in the smallest TV market among the NHL’s 24 U.S. teams.

    “Only an arrogant person would say there’s nothing to be fixed,” Black said. “We cannot take any of this stuff, like the incredible demand for tickets, for granted. We’re blessed with a passionate fan base that, quite frankly, I inherited. I didn’t create it. I need to do a better job every day connecting with our fans. I need to do a better job promoting every day that Buffalo is a premier hockey destination. Those efforts need to be stronger than the team’s record.”

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