Buffalo Sabres fans are angry about the NHL lockout. No surprise there. And their feelings extend to both sides. But while several who talked to The Buffalo News in phone interviews or comments via email and Twitter say they might cut down on their ancillary spending on things like concessions and merchandise, most aren’t making the ultimate rollback.
Almost no one is canceling their season tickets.
The lockout may be testing their faith in their sport, but it’s not changing the fans’ belief in their team.
The Sabres have 15,400 season ticket-holders and more than 3,000 others on a waiting list for tickets known as the Blue & Gold Club. Even though the lockout has stretched past 100 days and wiped out more than half of the 2012-13 season, the team reports just 15 accounts have canceled – accounting for fewer than 50 tickets.
On top of that, only about 20 percent have opted for refunds on the canceled games. The rest have kept their money with the team, earning 4 percent interest that will be refunded on credits for future tickets, merchandise or concessions.
Several other top hockey markets have similar circumstances with most Canadian teams having few longtime fans turning away.
The Pittsburgh Penguins last week reported just 45 accounts canceled, while the Philadelphia Flyers say their cancellation rate on season seats is less than 200.
In spite of those numbers, if you want a classic capsule of fans’ feelings you simply need to look to the Twitter feed of First Niagara Center season ticket-holder Kate Holzemer of Buffalo.
“A lockout is such a violation of the fan/sport relationship,” tweeted Holzemer, a violist in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra who has two seats in the 100 level. “We give you money, YOU GIVE US SPORTS. We don’t care about your bullhonkey, NHL.”
Told about the Sabres’ renewal rate among its top customers, Holzemer wasn’t surprised.
“It’s really an impossible situation for season ticket-holders,” she said. “I’m mad, but I know I won’t be mad forever, and I might never get my tickets back if I gave them up now.”
The Sabres had a 99 percent renewal rate for tickets for this season, an astonishing total for a team that didn’t make the Stanley Cup playoffs last year and has not won a postseason series since 2007. But the experience at First Niagara Center, combined with a pricing structure that makes season tickets in Buffalo one of the best deals with the NHL, has most people keeping their seats.
The Sabres, particularly owner Terry Pegula, have plenty of good equity built up with fans.
While the Boston Bruins may have a major PR issue to deal with because Buffalo-based owner Jeremy Jacobs has been at the center of the league’s hard-line negotiating stance, Pegula has not had any active role in the negotiations.
“I may be mad at Gary Bettman, Don Fehr, et al, but I feel confident in saying that it’s not Terry Pegula’s fault, nor the fault of any of his players or other employees, that this lockout has dragged on this far,” wrote Mike Tracz of Lockport, who sits in the 300 level. “A small part of me thusly feels like I’d be unfairly punishing the Sabres for boneheaded decisions made by the league they just so happen to be a member of, by canceling my season tickets.”
“I won’t get rid of my tickets because I don’t see this ownership as part of the problem, and I believe if there is one owner out there that truly wants to just get back on the ice, it’s Pegula,” wrote Joe Shadle from Williamsville, who has six seats in the 200 level for personal use and six in the 100s for business purposes.
“However, this whole experience has made me understand how little I, and all other fans, truly matter to both the [Players Association] and NHL. The last lockout seemed to have a purpose with the need for a salary cap, revenue sharing and even some rule changes that came to temporarily make the game more enjoyable. This lockout is purely money and ego driven.”
Andre Vitale of Rochester, a season ticket-holder since 2000, had a similar thought. “I am behind the Sabres 100 percent,” he said. “I support the players, and I do not blame Pegula. I think he’s staying out of it intentionally. When the season starts, I will be there screaming for my team and the players on that team.”
Then there’s Kevin Pritchard of Buffalo. He’s one of the few who gave up his season seats, two in Section 121 and two in Section 212.
“I will not spend one dollar on hockey this season,” Pritchard said. “And if they cancel this season, I won’t spend a dollar on hockey in 2013-14. Only way I could guarantee that was not getting tickets.”
Pritchard’s family had season tickets in the corner oranges of Memorial Auditorium, and he said he bought his tickets in 2005 following the last lockout in support of ownership. And now?
“I’m not mad at the Sabres. They’ve done a great job. I support Terry,” Pritchard said. “It’s just how else can I express my displeasure? I understand people don’t want to lose them and won’t do what I did, especially since I didn’t have to struggle to get them like they might have.
“I’m just a little surprised more people haven’t reached that tipping point. I get the fans who became fans in the Drury-Briere era. I can’t imagine more of the people my age (42) feeling like I do.”
Perhaps some do.”
“The money I already have in their ‘account’ ... is a reason I will probably stay a season ticket-holder for this season and go through with canceling them from next season on,” said Stephen Walczyk of Depew, who has two seats in the 300 level. “There has to be a way for fans to take a stand, and this is the only way I know how. Some don’t view this lockout as such a slap in the face as I do, but that’s what it is to me. The owners and players are fighting over, mostly, our money.
“I know the building won’t be empty for the first game back. That’s my pipe dream. But I certainly hope that it can be a SILENT building. That would send a message, I think.”
Many ticket-holders contacted also expressed concern at how the lockout will affect the secondary ticket market. In Buffalo, it’s common for season ticket-holders to essentially “fund” a large chunk of their account for the regular season by reselling some of their games – especially high-priced ones against Canadian teams like Toronto and Montreal – on sites like StubHub to recoup their money.
And while high-profile opponents will probably still be attractive to other fans on the Web, many say it will now be almost impossible to sell tickets to games against less-attractive teams like Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina or the New York Islanders.
So no matter who’s in the seats, what happens when hockey comes back?
“I will continue to keep my seats and go to games, but I don’t know how I’ll react when I do,” said Steve Bauman of Hamburg, who has two seats in the 300s. “I don’t know if I will be as emotionally invested. Prior to this situation, I would have classified myself as an avid fan. I don’t know if I will continue to be. As for more casual fans, the league could be in trouble.”
“If I was convinced that it would be easy to get my current seats back, I’d probably consider an outright cancellation,” Tracz said. “But although I’m angry right now, living through the last lockout taught me that this anger will likely subside. I don’t want to make an emotionally rooted decision right now that I might regret two years down the road.”
Still, there’s a certain feeling of hopelessness among fans waiting for this lockout to end.
Tweeted Holzemer: “Oh, hockey fans. We’re such a bunch of Charlie Browns. She’s gonna pull the football away. She does this EVERY time.”