Saturday, September 12, 2009

Another sellout crowd

The post from Heather on her blog, Top Shelf, jumped out at me. I tend to pay attention when someone talks about The Buffalo News sports department, and this phrase caught my eye: "I want Sully and Bucky [Jerry Sullivan and Bucky Gleason] to write whatever they want about the Sabres but I want them to stop dragging fans into it."

Now I'm not here to defend Jerry and Bucky, as they can do it themselves, but I am here to point out something that happening in Buffalo sports that is pretty close to unprecedented and has received little attention -- and it connects to what Heather is saying.

The relationship between Buffalo's teams and their fans have changed. It's now a case of "root, root, root for the home team; if they don't win it's the same." I'd argue that's a huge alteration in the dynamic.

Let's take a little history lesson here. For years and years, most of the other NFL teams sold their building out before the players reported to training camp. In a strictly economic sense, they had little incentive to win games. Any extra income from championships was offset by increased expenses in payroll.

One of the exceptions was right here, as the Bills played in a relatively small market in a huge stadium. When the Bills were awful, as they were in the late 1970's and mid-1980's, the fans disappeared by midseason. So there was a strong incentive to put together a good enough team that would generate enthusiasm and fill the empty seats. The team did that in the Super Bowl run.

The Sabres rode the initial enthusiasm of their entry in the NHL for about 12 years, when the sellouts came to an end. After that, the crowds were usually good, and a hint of success was enough to sell the building out regularly.

In both cases, you probably could split the crowds into two parts. The first was the base, composed of season-ticket holders and rabid fans (sometimes the same people). These are the people that show up week in and week out, buy the uniforms, put the flags on their cars, etc. No matter how the score comes out, these people find pro sports entertaining, and they aren't going to deny themselves the pleasure of going if on-field activities aren't particularly good. (These are the people who wouldn't let a strike/lockout interfere with the love of the game, for example.) You need that sort of support just to prevent the peaks and valleys that come with a team's ups and downs over the years.

Then there are the "bandwagon fans," who are much more likely to buy tickets when the team is doing well. In other words, they "vote with their wallets."

If I'm reading Heather correctly, she's saying that sometimes the columnists wonder why those on the bandwagon are still going for the ride, still supporting the teams despite a run of mediocrity in the last few years -- and she doesn't want to be lumped in with those fans. Can't blame her for that.

But here's the change -- the base for Sabres and Bills game is now practically a sellout. Buffalo sells out most football games -- the cold weather contests at the end of the season usually have empty seats if the games mean little -- and most hockey games -- a Tuesday night against the Islanders might have a few fewer fans, for example. In other words, winning is less important to many in the fanbase than the entertainment value they get from games.

I think there are two big reasons for that -- marketing and fear of departure.

The Bills and Sabres were a bit late in coming to the marketing party, but they have learned that opening the doors just isn't enough any more. The Bills have tried to sell tickets more regionally, and they have reduced their season-ticket price by pushing games to Toronto. The team also has learned to work with the corporate community in a variety of ways. The Sabres have done things like variable pricing and a variety of community projects to reach out to the fans.

The fear of departure is the more interesting situation, though. Bills' fans know the team's lease is coming due in a few years, and that a team owner could earn at least a potential $250 million by moving the franchise to Los Angeles. And that doesn't include the current dance with Toronto interests. The NFL certainly is the biggest sports spectacle in the country, and Western New Yorkers want to do their part that it stays here. Sabres' fans were reminded just how fragile the team-fan relationship is when the team drew fewer than 10,000 per game at times during the whole Rigas bankruptcy scare of some years back. As the good folks in Phoenix will tell you, a team can try to depart for other pastures without a great deal of notice.

I'm not saying that there aren't limits to a fan's patience when it comes to winning, because there are. Put a team like the Detroit Lions of 2008 (0-16) in The Ralph, and you'd have empty seats bloom like flowers in the spring. But pretty clearly, the fan base has grown, and that has to be recognized.

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