The Buffalo Sabres are 14th in average NHL attendance. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
“With the right economic system, we can take the pressure off of ticket prices and I believe with the right economic system, many, if not most of our teams, will actually lower ticket prices. I believe we owe it to our fans to have affordable ticket prices.” - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at the 2004 All-Star Game, six months before the players were locked out.
So, it turns out the Buffalo Sabres were listening to the advice of Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, the NHL’s reigning authority on how to best alienate your fan base.
My guess is they won’t make that mistake again.
A game against the Toronto Maple Leafs used to be an instant sellout for the Sabres, who would salivate at the thought of all the suckers, er, Maple Leaf fans, making the 90-minute trek down the Queen Elizabeth Way to watch their team play. But something strange happened on the way to the HSBC Arena – the Sabres jacked up prices for their games against the Leafs and some of the suckers stopped coming.
The Sabres have had “variable pricing” for a couple of years now, meaning the more popular the opponent, the more people would have to pay for their tickets. So that means for the three games against the Leafs and their home game against the Montreal Canadiens last Friday fans were subjected to “platinum” prices ranging from $78 to $233.
So far, three of those four “premium” games have already been played and not a single one has sold out. For the game against the Leafs last week, the Sabres came almost 1,400 short of a sellout and have had an average of 784 empty seats for each of the three games.
Sabres minority owner Larry Quinn acknowledged in The Buffalo News recently that the Sabres were “pushing the envelope” with such high pricing in an effort to see exactly what the market would bear. He also said Jacobs was, “putting pressure on us, saying our prices weren’t high enough.”
This is not to rag on the Sabres because, even though they raised their ticket prices by almost 12 percent this season, their prices remain among the bottom three in the NHL. But what does all of this tell us? It tells us that the statements made by Bettman at the All-Star Game in Minnesota in 2004 are a bunch of hooey.
For the umpteenth time, anyone who thought the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season was ever about ticket prices and making the game more affordable for the fans needs an immediate reality check. It was never about any of those things – it was about controlling costs and the undeniable reality that franchise values soar when a prospective owner knows exactly how much he’ll have to pay in player salaries.
Yes, teams dropped their ticket prices the season after the lockout, but it had nothing to do with making the game more affordable and everything to do with rebuilding goodwill among its fan base. According to Team Marketing Report, the average NHL ticket price went from $43.57 in 2003-04 to $41.19 in 2005-06 when the league returned.
It took just one year to get that back basically to the pre-lockout levels when the league hiked prices to a $43.13 average for the 2006-07 season, before gouging their fans for five dollars more per ticket by raising them to $48.72 last season. This season’s average ticket price is $49.66, more than six dollars higher than they were, on average, prior to the lockout.
Once again, ticket prices are based solely on supply and demand, nothing else. The more a team can charge for tickets, the more it will do so. Why else would the Sabres, who have sold out the vast majority of their games since the lockout, try “pushing the envelope” in a market that is one of the most depressed in North America?
They were trying to see where the ceiling was for ticket prices, they admitted as much themselves. Does that sound like an organization that is trying to keep ticket prices affordable? And you can bet if ticket prices have risen across the NHL, things such as parking and concessions aren’t going down in any hurry, either.
The NHL can’t have it both ways. Either it was misleading fans going into the lockout or it has had the stuffing kicked out of it by the NHL Players’ Association so badly once again that it must gain the extra revenue from jacked-up ticket prices. Neither scenario bodes well, unfortunately.
NHL owners are businessmen and they have the right to set their own prices according to market conditions. We all get that. But when the league goes to war with its players once again in 2012 – and it almost certainly will – do not let Bettman or anyone else with the league hoodwink you into thinking the battle is about making the game more reasonably priced for you.
Don’t fall for it for a second.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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