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A Season Ticket Meltdown?

Weekend deadline to renew to earn possible perks

Friday, March 20 is the target date. That is the first deadline that Buffalo Sabres season ticket holders have to sign up for 2009-10 season tickets.

The incentive?

“Rebates,” in the form of credits which would accrue for each home playoff game purchased and played, which would in theory lower the cost of next year’s tickets.

The problem here is that the Sabres are hitting the perfect storm of playoff obsolescence just as the deadline approaches. The team is mired in 10th place in the standings and cannot take care of business against the conference bottom feeders, suffering embarrassing loses against the Islanders, Senators, and Thrashers in recent weeks.

Scoreboard watchers are earning no solace, as night after night teams competing against the Sabres for those last four slots are racking up the points. And you know in your heart that when two of those foes play each other, as in Carolina v. Pittsburgh, it’s going to a shootout and someone is getting a free point.

Thinking about an epic first round series against the Boston Bruins? What better way to reignite that fabled old rivalry from the 1970s and 1980s, and many agree that the Sabres would have an excellent chance in actually taking that matchup. The only problem is, they have to get there first.

Just two years ago, the Sabres cut off season ticket sales due to excessive demand, also freezing the mini-pack program in the process. A waiting list was established, with participants able to secure their place in line with a nominal deposit.

But the dynamics of ticket sales, and resales, has changed dramatically in those two short years. Structured point-of-sale outlets such as eBay and Stubhub now offer the opportunity for ticket holders to resell tickets, many taking advantage of the gulf between season ticket prices and face value. The result is hundreds of tickets available online for any given game, at prices far cheaper than the eye-popping “platinum” and “gold” prices at the window.

So games against marquee opponents, such as Toronto, Montreal, and New York, have seen yawning gaps of empty blue seats in the upper reaches of the building, while marginal opponents such as Nashville and Anaheim have drawn packed houses. Why?

The answer lies in a combination of factors: People in Buffalo love their sports, but aren’t about to plunk down $200 to see a regular season game. Leafs fans are passionate, but their team’s sagging fortunes haven’t exactly inspired road trips to Buffalo. The recent surge in the US dollar exacerbates that problem. Lastly, the recession is hurting box office sales at all sports venues, as people and businesses cut back in their discretionary spending.

Buffalo is not the only market dealing with weakening demand and possible sales problems moving forward. The situation is so dire in Phoenix, which is projecting up to a $45-million loss this season alone, that the team is in danger of folding. In the two Florida markets, the teams are papering the houses with promotions to put fannies in the seats. In Tampa, buy a burger and shake at Checkers, a local fast food chain, and you get a voucher for a free terrace level ticket to select games. In Florida, the Panthers offer a $17 ticket, which earns you a gas card, free parking, and a food voucher good in the arena, the value of which exceeds the cost of the game ticket. And they still can’t get people to come to the games.

The same holds true in Nashville, where free or heavily discounted seats are the team’s dirty little secret.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s grand vision of a Southern strategy, with flourishing teams in all corners of the continent, is an abject failure. While markets along the 49th parallel, including Seattle/Portland, Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Quebec City, clamor for teams and would do so much to help the NHL flourish, the league stubbornly props up weak franchises and indifferent fan bases with a complicated revenue sharing formula, promising financial aid to struggling teams who can meet certain performance thresholds.

And that’s where Buffalo’s season ticket base is so very critical. Last month when the Sabres unveiled their playoff and season ticket pricing, team spokesman Michael Gilbert stressed the importance of the franchise qualifying for league revenue sharing. Without it, the franchise could not exist, and to qualify, the team must meet certain numbers in terms of sales and revenues. By signing up its best customers now, the Sabres can project what those numbers will be and can plan accordingly.

During the Great Depression, the NHL lost a good number of teams due to contraction. (Remember the New York Americans and the Montreal Marroons?) This ushered in a golden era for the league and its “Original Six.” If Atlanta, Phoenix, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Columbus went “poof” tomorrow, how many of us would shed a tear?

But add Buffalo—a rock solid and rabid hockey market—to that list? Unthinkable, but not impossible.

Time to head to the mailbox and send in our season ticket renewal.

As for the playoffs? The team will shake its cobwebs, go on a season-ending run, and open the playoffs at Boston on Thursday, April 16.

Ya gotta believe!

Read more Puck Stop on Artvoice Daily.

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