Fans streamed into KeyBank Center for Ryan Miller Night on Jan. 19 – an unfamiliar site over the previous two seasons for the Buffalo Sabres.
Two days later, the Sabres had their fifth sellout of the season for a Kids Day matinee contest, before the team left town for a four-game road trip.
That’s been a big change from last season, when empty seats were nearly as common as fans at Sabres home games.
Attendance is up by about 46% this season, with the team averaging 14,633 fans in announced attendance – a testament to the team’s improved record and its position as the highest scoring team in the National Hockey League.
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But the Sabres still have a long way to go. The team, which had played to regular sellouts for almost a decade, beginning with a Presidents’ Trophy-winning squad in 2006-07 led by Chris Drury and Daniel Briere that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, still is drawing more than 20% fewer fans than during those peak years.
The Sabres had hit an all-time low in attendance during the 2021-22 campaign, averaging just 9,997 people per game. And that figure was spiked by the Heritage Classic counting as a home game. More than 26,000 fans attended that game at the Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ont.
That came off a 2020-21 season wrought with Covid restrictions for fans attending games.
During those two seasons, KeyBank Center was sold out just twice – both in April 2022, as fans flocked to the arena for Rick Jeanneret Night, celebrating the retirement of the team’s longtime broadcaster, and then again for his final call at the Sabres regular season home finale.
“They’re much better to watch this season than they have been,” said Rick Fanton, who attended the Miller Night game with fellow Sabres fan Beverly Evenden. “We’ve been having a good time at the games.”
Though Buffalo would miss the playoffs for a 12th straight year if the postseason were to start today, fans have more reasons for optimism with encouraging signs for the Sabres’ future. Buffalo is one point out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, as of Tuesday, and plays at home Wednesday against Carolina in its final game before the All-Star break.
But it even took a while for fans to come back this season, with some taking a wait-and-see approach. Attendance has improved each month, as the season progressed and topped an average of 16,000 for the seven home games in January. Four of the team’s five sellouts are in the past eight home games – since Dec. 29.
“We just jumped in,” said Erik Koch, who decided before this season to buy two season tickets and splits them with three other friends. “They should be making a playoff push – they’re on the cusp of it.”
And while more fans have been in the seats at KeyBank Center so far this season, the Sabres still rank at or near the bottom of the league in a few key attendance numbers.
Through 25 of the team’s 41 home games, the Sabres have averaged 14,633 fans in their 19,070-capacity arena, according to hockey-reference.com.
That 76.7% average capacity ranks last among NHL teams. Their average attendance per game is 29th among the league’s 32 teams, as of Tuesday. Only the Winnipeg Jets (14,117), San Jose Sharks (13,844) and Arizona Coyotes, who are playing their home games in a 4,600-capacity college arena, rank lower.
Sabres players have said they realize they need to earn back the fans and that doesn’t happen overnight.
“We’ve had to prove to the fans that we’re a competitive team,” said Sabres star defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, after one of those sellouts – Buffalo’s 6-5 overtime win over the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 7.
“We love playing in this arena,” he added. “When the fans are loud, we just want to win more.”
Dahlin wrote an open letter to Sabres fans on the team’s website Tuesday saying that playing in front of a packed house in important games “are the nights we have dreamt of these past two years.” His letter ends with a link to purchase tickets and “Be there on Wednesday.”
“It’s hard to describe what it feels like when KeyBank Center is full,” Dahlin wrote. “I get chills thinking about the roar of the crowd every time we have a scoring chance. Or a big hit. Or a successful penalty kill. Honestly, the whole night feels like a power play.
This season’s Sabres attendance numbers are a big improvement over what the team drew during the 2021-22 season.
The Sabres finished 31st in overall attendance – ahead of only the Ottawa Senators – playing inside what on average was a half-empty building. The team’s season ticket base, which was once around 16,000 as late as the 2016-17 season, last year dropped to about 6,500, the Sabres revealed. The Sabres had averaged at least 18,000 fans per game every season from 2006-07 through 2017-18.
The team is projected to have had around a 30% jump in season ticket sales this season, putting that number around 9,000 – a calculation guided by preseason announced attendance.
The Sabres declined to give concrete numbers on current sales because the organization does not provide that information, a team spokesperson said.
Flexibility at box office helps
The Sabres have added staff to its ticketing and sales team for the general public and holders of premium seating, such as club level and suites. The team also has provided more options and flexibility for fans looking to regularly go to games.
In addition to getting a full season plan of 41 regular-season games and three preseason contests, fans can grab half-season plans of 22 games, quarter-season plans of 11 games and customizable plans that start with as few as five games.
“We’re really trending in the right direction and we still have a lot of work to do,” Frank Batres-Landaeta, the team’s vice president of ticket sales and service, told The News in September.
Fanton said he was close to getting season tickets last season but didn’t bite. However, this season he decided to get one of the mini-packs.
“The big problem is getting to some of the weeknight games,” he said.
Evenden said she likes the flexibility of the Sabres ticket packages, including the availability of ones featuring weekend games.
“They’re a fun, young team,” she said. “Now that they offer a pack just for weekend games, that’s a nice option, and something we may do next season.”
Sabres fan Becky McCulskey gave kudos to the team for celebrating Miller, the Sabres all-time goaltending wins leader, along with other themed and throwback nights that highlight the franchise’s earlier days, as well as the 1990s and early 2000s. Events such as that help bring together fans from the past and present, she said.
“It’s a nice way to merge generations of people who have been watching the Sabres since the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s with the younger generation, and really bring the community together,” she said.
Three of the Sabres’ sellouts have been for Saturday games, against the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 21, Minnesota on Jan. 7 and division-rival Boston Bruins on Nov. 12, and the others were Thursday games, against the New York Islanders on Miller Night and Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 29, which was after the Christmas weekend blizzard and 16 days since the team had last played a home game.
“When you have 19,000 people you might send home disappointed, if you think that doesn’t affect you as a team and individuals, it’s a load to handle,” Sabres head coach Don Granato said after the Jan. 7 game.
“It’s more than just the crowd, you can feel the passion in the building,” he added. “Nights like that are opportunities to make memories for hockey fans and hockey people.”
Buffalo has also had two near sellouts, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Nov. 23, versus the St. Louis Blues (17,302) and a Friday night game, on Dec. 9, against the Pittsburgh Penguins (17,205), whose fans travel well for road games in nearby Buffalo.
The next highest attended games so far this season have been against the New Jersey Devils, with 16,727 on the Friday after Thanksgiving; Nov. 10 versus the Vegas Golden Knights, with 15,757 on a Thursday against former Sabre Jack Eichel; and Oct. 13, against Ottawa, with 15,364 for the team’s home opener on a Thursday. The home opener the prior year only drew about 7,000 fans.
This season’s most poorly attended game was Oct. 31 on a Monday night against Detroit when 9,673 seats were filled. Monday through Wednesday games have been attended significantly less by Sabres fans this season.
The weather also hasn’t helped the Sabres this season. A Dec. 23 game on the Friday night before Christmas against NHL power Tampa Bay Lightning was sure to be a highly attended game with expats and college students home for the holidays, but the pre-Christmas blizzard moved that game to March 4.
As a result, a Saturday game against the Philadelphia Flyers was rescheduled to a Monday, on Jan. 9. It was one of the worst attended games of the season.