The Buffalo Sabres might take plenty of hits on the ice this season with the hope of a better future. The same might be said for what we're about to see in the stands at KeyBank Center.
Or not see.
For now at least, the days of sellout crowds are going to be over. A confluence of factors – led, of course, by the team's 10-year playoff drought – has cratered season ticket sales to a point the franchise has never endured.
And with the season opener set for Thursday night here against the Montreal Canadiens, there's no telling how small some of the crowds will be for these early-season games.
A season-ticket base that was in the 16,000 range as recently as the 2017-18 season is now at about 6,500, the team confirmed on the eve of the opener.
There can be no longer be any sneering from fans (or media) at images of empty buildings in places like Florida, Carolina or Ottawa. It will be pretty easy for similarly ugly shots to come out of Buffalo. Longtime observers figure no more than 4,000 fans were in the house for any of the three preseason games, and the Oct. 6 game against Columbus had to be the smallest non-snowstorm crowd I've ever seen.
The Sabres aren't alarmed by this. They knew it was coming in the wake of last year's 31st-place finish played in front of no fans for 24 of the 28 games because of the pandemic. Many of the customers simply never came back and others could not, even if they wanted to.
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That's why the news late Tuesday night of the imminent reopening of the U.S. border to Canadian fans was a breath of fresh air for team officials.
Canadian season ticket holders, which number more than 1,200, were allowed to pause their accounts and save their seats for future seasons. But now the team can reach out to them and start the process of trying to get them to return.
"It's an extremely positive thing. The biggest thing right now is we need to work with these Canadian members to get them back in the building," said John Durbin, the senior vice president of marketing and business strategy for Pegula Sports and Entertainment. "We're looking at about a year and a half of the border being closed and we've been very accommodating to our Canadian members, working with them and making sure they're staying engaged and have their seats available should the border open up."
The border is a major factor in single-game sales as well and the Sabres have four November home games against Canadian opponents. They are hopeful the situation is settled for what figures to be a huge Friday-Saturday against Edmonton and Toronto on Nov. 12-13. Calgary is here Nov. 18 and Montreal makes its other appearance Nov. 26.
The won-loss record and the border are just two reasons. Just over 400 accounts dropped because of the vaccination mandate and the team is clamping down on the broker market.
The Sabres are no longer partnering with a bevy of secondary sellers as they did to push seats in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. Back then, around 3,000 seats were in brokers' hands and that number has been pared down to under 900. The Sabres also are not papering the house, with fewer than 100 complimentary tickets spread out for opening night. That figure has been appreciably higher the last several years.
All of those factors will cut the overall attendance figure. None of the three preseason games had more than 7,000 tickets distributed. The Sabres have never averaged under 13,000 per game since KeyBank Center opened in 1996. It seems highly unlikely they get close to that number this year.
"Our sport is entertaining, We need to play with passion and the energy," coach Don Granato said Wednesday. " ... You have to earn respect. And it has to be re-earned every single day in our business. And we want players that know that, accept that but love that. They love the job that they're doing so much they'll be like yeah, dammit, we'll take on this task. That was a big part of when I took over, I just think we need to play an exciting, energetic style and things will fall where they may."
"We all know fans will come out and support a winner. We saw it most recently during the 10-game winning streak (in 2018)," Durbin said. "What's important to us right now, is that everything around that team has to be the best it can be. So we have to be strategic with how we're investing, where we're turning our attention, taking feedback from our members and fans, and implementing changes."
The Sabres have a "wallet-share" philosophy on how sports fans divvy up their spending. It's tough for that cash to come their way this year with Bills' fans gobbling up season tickets and saving up for that Super Bowl trip to Los Angeles in February. Other fans spent several hundred dollars on Toronto Blue Jays tickets during their stay at Sahlen Field in June and July, and now the local concert scene is returning.
"You have to treat it like every game can be somebody's first game, leave them with a good experience and a positive experience and provide them entertainment," Durbin said. "And if the team does their job, and plays hard, and plays fast, whether they win or lose, they take care of that."
Like Granato, General Manager Kevyn Adams knows there has to be entertainment value tied to the process. Remember, the Clarence native was senior vice president of business administration before he was named GM and has built a strong relationship with Bills counterpart Brandon Beane since his promotion.
During his stint on the business side of the operation, Adams wasn't focused as much on the ice. He'd look around the arena and bemoan the lack of pizzazz and passion in the building. He knows that has to improve.
"I wake up every day thinking about how do we get better today? How do we move this franchise forward? How do we make our fans proud?" Adams told reporters at the start of training camp. "How do we earn the respect from you guys, from our fans, from the league? I don't live in the past. I think you can learn from the past, but I'm not interested in living in the past."
The players aren't going to worry about who's in the stands and who isn't. The fact of the matter is their job is keenly focused on the ice. But they better realize quick what they do impacts everything around it.
"We want to be a part of Buffalo," Granato said. "I think these guys do. And we've made that part of our discussions with them. You should be damn proud to be a hockey player. This is a privilege and an honor, and play with that passion."
We're open to seeing it.