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The Journey Into the Abyss

Sabres facing huge challenges filling seats as miserable season ends

Roscoe is one of the veteran “scalpers,”—or, as he prefers to be called, “ticket resellers”—and he is patrolling his usual post right behind newly opened One Canalside as fans trudge towards the First Niagara Center for the Sabres vs. New Jersey game this past Tuesday night.

Like most hockey nights this season, there are plenty of tickets on the street. And few takers. “It’s real tough. Real tough. You want to get rid of your extra tickets on the way in to the arena? I’ll give you, like, a buck a piece,” said Roscoe. “And there’s a 50/50 chance that by the end of the night, I’ll be out that buck and have a ticket to shred.”

The ticket resellers who ply their trade outside the arena are just part of the mosaic of a robust marketplace, which involves not only the team selling tickets at the window but a great number of season ticket holders, most of whom can’t make the commitment to 44 home games, and who sell off extras online to recoup their dollars or even make some money to subsidize their financial commitment.

The Sabres offer season ticket packages at roughly 40 percent off of the window prices. This pricing matrix, along with a variable single ticket pricing plan, was conceived by former Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn and his front office team. It was a brilliant concept. Customers snapped up season tickets, to the point that the team had to cap sales and create a waiting list.

Sensing that single ticket sales and filling the arena would be a challenge during this first rebuilding year, the team upped their season list to 16,000 seats, welcoming new buyers off the waiting list. Additionally, the team has raised ticket prices for the past two seasons, despite assurances from new owner Terry Pegula back in 2011 that he had no interest in upping ticket costs, and that if more revenue was needed to run his team, he would “drill another well.”

Nonetheless, as this season ends with but two home games remaining, the Sabres’ best customers have been left holding the bag for tickets that not many want and that have diminished value in the secondary marketplace.

Paul Widmer, whose family runs a marketing consulting business in Lockport, has owned four season tickets in his company for close to a generation. “We go to a lot of the games and use the tickets as promotional items for our clients,” Widmer explained. “This year most people have said, ‘No, thanks, not interested.’ Once [coach Ted] Nolan came on board, that stimulated a bit more interest, but this has been one hard team to watch in person.”

Widmer’s family have been loyal customers going back to their days in the Aud, where they sat in Section 12 in the reds. They’ve gone through the good and bad, and never wavered in buying tickets, even during the dark days of the Adelphia scandal and the bankruptcy era. “What’s going on now is far, far worse,” Widmer said. “Do Ted Black and Terry Pegula have tin ears? For the first time since I’ve been going to games as a kid, we’re giving a long, hard look at our season ticket commitment to the team come the offseason. And I will tell you this, we love the Sabres so much that if we do part with our tickets, it will be more painful than a divorce.”

Team officials have stressed that they were saddled with three preseason and eight regular season games in October, typically a challenging time to get people excited about hockey. With the team firing Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston, and bringing in Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan, that stimulated interest. Popular opponents such as Pittsburgh and Chicago drew sellouts, as did the Hasek Hall of Fame night last weekend, a gold game which initially had oceans of unsold inventory.

Nonetheless, the Sabres marketing people have been quietly papering the house to incite more fans to buy tickets. The team offered fans producing military credentials a $20 admission earlier this year. Season ticket holders have received a team email offering tickets to a number of games this year at “season ticket prices.” Four-packs and other promotional gimmicks have become a standard.

Check out online reselling sites such as SeatGeek or StubHub: For some games tickets this year seats have been as cheap as $8 for uppers, with club seats selling for $47. The online want ads site Craigslist has displayed a bounty of listings offering tickets at “below season prices.”

“Anyone who actually buys tickets at the box office and pays full price these days is an idiot,” says Roscoe. “Take a walk around the building on game night or go on the internet. There are bargains everywhere.”

The Sabres’ farm team Rochester Americans are raising ticket prices next year, but offering renewing fans prices locked in at this year’s cost. One of the most interesting things to watch as the Sabres head into the offseason will be how they approach ticket pricing for next year, and what will they do to sell the product to a base of customers that has endured a boatload of suffering, with more on the way.

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