It’s not about winning: Improving the Sabres’ game experience at First Niagara Center

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There’s been a lot on this blog about things that don’t happen on the ice. Not everything you do as a Sabres fan is about the roster and the final score. Sports is more than that. It’s a cultural thing. It’s an experience.

Being a fan is a visceral, and it’s a huge investment both emotionally and financially to walk into First Niagara Center on a regular basis. You want to want to be there. You want to feel like you’re missing out if you’re not, like the investment is worth it.

I’ve talked (at times, ad nauseam) about things like game presentation, social media and marketing, not only because of my sports business background, but because to me, and every other fan, that stuff matters. Usually it’s fairly simple things, like not sticking a blooper reel on the scoreboard in a tight game, or playing songs during stoppages that will help set or reset the tone, or wanting a twitter account that doesn’t feel like it’s run by a teenage fan-boy/fan-girl. Simple things that, if addressed and optimized, can incrementally improve the overall experience, getting people more engaged and making the arena a better place to be.

Before this blog goes dormant, I want to put this wish-list out there. Some of these things may have been discussed, some of them may have not permeated the groupthink at First Niagara Center. Either way, I’m a season ticket holder (likely, for life) and the inherent value of being there for a game means something. It should.

This isn’t meant to be some sort of takedown or exposé on what the organization does wrong. This will get read by Sabres employees (Hey guys! Thanks for blocking me on twitter for no good reason! It’s still really dumb!) and I’m hoping what’s said doesn’t get taken personally or as an insult. This is just sort of a plea/roadmap for improvement that I want to put out there before I go away.

So, put on the coffee. Here’s a few things the Sabres can do around the arena to make it a better place to be.

Tell the story of the building

Walking the concourse of First Niagara Center, you may have seen these random, fading lines of paint outside what is now the Blue Zone bar area.

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It’s inexplicable.

There’s no reasoning for them, there’s no explanation visible anywhere. Do you know what this is?

Here’s a hint.

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Yes, right under your nose as you head to the restroom, or go grab a beer, is a subtle tribute to one of the most memorable plays in Sabres history. There’s another play beside it, which may look familiar, despite it not happening at home.

But, that’s it. Nothing since 1998 has been done to memorialize some of the great things that have happened there. And some fantastic, fun, amazing things have happened. And more will happen.

We’re rapidly approaching the 20th birthday of Crossro… I mean, Marine Midl… wait, I mean HSBC Ar… excuse me, First Niagara Center. Opened in 1996, it was a drastic modernization from the old Memorial Auditorium down the street. It was a milestone in franchise history. It needs to be celebrated.

While the ownership has done a lot to upgrade the building, from the statue outside to the gorgeous HarborCenter across the street, it’s not what it once was. Blue and gold paint has covered the building, making it obvious that it’s the Sabres home rink. The multi-colored neon lights on the facade are long gone. The original marine scheme of the arena, while always a contrast from the colors the team wears on the ice, gave it a certain character. It had a vibe. It’s now modern, beautifully blue and gold, and a bit soulless.

It needs an injection of that aura. Paint some more plays on the floor and put a giant picture of it next to them. Create the context. I understand the need and desire to #brand the arena for the Sabres, but losing that vibe, that connection to the past… it’s soul-crushing for long-time fans. Whether the organization is concerned about them or not, that core of their fan-base getting re-energized by simple doses of nostalgia can fan the flickering flames of passion for this team.

Make your rink a cathedral.

Oh, and a black and red night in October 2016 against Detroit, in the black and red uniforms, would be pretty awesome too.

Sell hockey, not just the Sabres

When the Sabres installed the “Pour Man’s Aud Club” on the 100 Level about a decade ago, they brought in some relics from the now-demolished Aud. Some seats, some benches, and a couple old message boards that displayed the Sabres’ player statistics and the NHL standings.

Oddly enough, you have better luck seeing the incomplete league standings for the 1995-1996 National Hockey League season when you’re inside First Niagara Center than the actual standings for the current season. You can’t find it anywhere, not since they removed the electronic message boards outside what was originally the Headlines Sports Bar outside sections 102 and 103.

Wouldn’t it be easier to get fans interested and invested in the game they’re paying to see if they knew what it meant? I understand that technology is different now and everyone can look it up on their phone, but if you’re in marketing and selling sponsorships and selling what the team does, isn’t the last thing you want fans to do is not pay attention to what you put in front of them?

Building hockey fans, not just Sabres fans, is important. If people only care about the Sabres, they’re only going to consume Sabres hockey. When Sabres hockey isn’t a draw (like now) and they’re not interested in the team they’re playing, or whatever game is on NBCSN, you’re going to get disengagement from people simply because they haven’t become attached to the game beyond your brand. Make people think everything matters. It only helps you.

There isn’t one place in the arena that you can go to watch other NHL games. Sure, (716) Food and Sport is open, but that’s not in the arena. When this team is good, and there’s playoff positioning at stake, and there’s a concurrent game that night in Montreal that will determine if the team wins the division or not, or determines a wild card spot, there needs to be a place to go to watch during intermissions. Or once the Sabres are up 8-3 in the third, where fans can go buy a beer and catch the end of the other game. Getting people excited about what else is happening only helps you. A small out-of-town scoreboard opposite the 50/50 total isn’t enough.

If you sell the league, and the game, that’s when the market puts up ridiculous NBCSN ratings, or World Junior ratings, and it makes more of a statement about the appetite for the game. Then you get more national broadcasts. You get more major events. You get people going to games and paying attention even when the team is awful. You get people caring.

Make people care.

More 7:30 starts, especially on Fridays

One of the amazing things happening around this team is what’s happening around the arena. Two decades after the new arena was built, you’re finally seeing some semblance of an arena district. It’s long overdue, and wonderful for the city.

461692766_slideBut with the majority of home games on weeknights, it’s hard to take advantage of it when you’re rushing to the arena after work for a 7:00 start. While it’s good for families with little kids who have bedtimes, for the type of people who’d be more likely to stir up the atmosphere in the arena, an extra half hour to grab dinner or a drink near the arena would do wonders.

Before the 2004 lockout, the Sabres had even pushed Friday night home games back to 8:00, and it honestly felt like there was a difference. Don’t make fans stress about getting down to the arena in time for puck drop. Let them go get dinner, have a few drinks, make the game the main event while allowing for an undercard on the evening.

The obvious counterpoint is in defense of the on-ice aspect, where players have less time to rest and later travel on nights where they’d be leaving for a back-to-back. It’s a reasonable argument, and if the players’ performance is what you’re after, then you can hold your ground and say it doesn’t matter. But there’s no black-and-white here. It’s a balance. Sure extra rest might help the players, but so would playing in a building that’s bursting with energy.

Demanding 8:00 starts on Fridays isn’t the point, but it wouldn’t hurt to split the difference here and there.

Remember the Sabres team colors: navy, gold, silver, red, black, royal…

9141_buffalo_sabres-jersey-1971It’s sad to see the team in recent years go to great lengths to ensure that the #brand is protected. Everything about the team and the arena is solely blue and gold, and you saw on most of the things surrounding Dominik Hasek’s number retirement that there was an emphasis on presenting him in blue and gold. Despite the fact that most of his premier accomplishments happened in black and red, it seemed as if the team went out of their way to say the Sabres are blue and gold. They are now. That’s great.

1529_buffalo_sabres-jersey-2000But the Sabres are also black and red. And they’re royal and gold. And the “slug” logo is still a Sabres logo. No matter what your thoughts are on the look, or on changes that have been made, the Sabres are still the Sabres. If the team wore it, it matters. You don’t have to turn your back on it. Some fans in your base came to love this franchise in the years they wore something different.

6773_buffalo_sabres-jersey-2007It happened. Accept it. Embrace it.

Throw some old jerseys or player jersey shirts for sale in the store. Have some pucks for sale. Let it be part of the story. At some point, everything becomes vintage. We’re on the verge of a black-and-red resurgence, I promise.

This team’s history should be treasured, and just because it’s not the original crest or what you wear now doesn’t make it a pox on the traditions of the franchise. Don’t treat it as such.

Oh, and another thing on this… pick a logo and go with it. Anyone with eyes can see that the logo is so inconsistently used by the organization. Does the logo have silver outlines? Is the eye red? The logo on scoreboard isn’t the same as the logo at center ice or the one on the podium in the media room. It’s incredibly frustrating to see something that you’re supposed to treat as sacred (don’t step on the logo in the locker room!) is just mixed and matched on a whim. You want the crest to mean something. Don’t compromise that.

Bring back giveaways and stop referring to them as “gimmicks”

One of the things that has been long absent for the organization are traditional arena giveaways. I’m not talking about Sabres prize packs for answering some dumb question on the scoreboard. I’m talking about the things that happen everywhere in sports: giveaway items. Bobbleheads. Posters. Pucks. Keychains. Anything of that nature.

Sabres president Ted Black, any time this was discussed, defended the team’s reluctance by saying they didn’t need “gimmicks” to get people to come to games. They don’t. They have a huge season ticket base. A huge season ticket base who, at this point, doesn’t seem to feel like they should have to show up, as evidenced by the large secondary market and swaths of empty blue seats at every game. These people aren’t showing up because they don’t see the incentive to go. How do you fix that?

A good chunk of the disinterest could be resolved simply by doing what the team did surrounding Hasek night: give people a reason to want to go to a game.

Scenario: you’re a season ticket holder and you’re sick of going to all these games that never seem to differentiate from each other, so you decide to sell a couple and look at the schedule to see which ones to keep. Coming up you have a Friday night against, let’s say, San Jose and a Tuesday night against Colorado. You’re a Sabres fan. You don’t watch these other teams. The Friday night there’s nothing going on, and the Tuesday night the team is giving away a Rick Jeanneret bobblehead, sponsored by (insert Gold Ring Partner here). Which one do you think Joe Sabresfan is going to make a point to be at. I’d be there too. I want that.

459054896_slideIt’s not hard to find things to do, things to give away or sell the idea to sponsors. Everyone that got a Hasek banner January 13th has it hanging up in their house right now with that First Niagara logo on the back. People appreciate this stuff. It doesn’t cost a lot with sponsorships, and it gets people excited to be at that game on that night. Tell me one thing the organization does now that creates that interest? There isn’t anything.

It’s a cultural issue that needs to be solved. You see it with the team’s upcoming “Sabres UnPucked” event, which we’ve discussed as misguided and lacking. Tickets aren’t selling. So now they’re throwing together promotions to get people to buy them. It comes across as desperate because it’s not built-in. You can’t say “buy this, you get nothing else” and come back with “buy this and we’ll give you this” later and not purvey it without it devaluing what you’re doing.

When the schedule comes out, before the season, you tell everyone what you’re doing on what night and build it in to what you do. Print it on the pocket schedules. Post it on the website. Let people know that they’ll be getting a giveaway, whether it’s a nice scarf or CPS (Cheap Plastic Shit) and they just might want to show up. Say “This Thursday game in February we’re giving away knit hats sponsored by (insert partner here) and you should make a point to consider that when you divide up your tickets with your friends,” and I swear, it’ll work.

It’s not a hard concept. The organization is extremely fortunate to have created a market of fear around their season tickets, where people don’t give them up because they’ll never get them back. That’s not an excuse to take the ticket revenue and not worry about whether or not people are actually coming in the building.

Put the game back in “game presentation”

I’m prefacing this one by saying that the game presentation, which has drawn my ire for years, has been improving. Staff changes helped. Improvements in equipment has helped. It’s trending in the right direction and I’m honestly more confident than ever that somewhere down the line, I’ll go to a game and feel like things were done well. I’ll go to a game and not think about it. Ideally, that’s what you want, you don’t want to be distracted by something you’d look at and say “That’s dumb. Why is this happening?”

But there’s still things that need work. And I feel like it’s about shifting the target mindset on a lot of things. It’s not about getting people to have fun. It’s not about pleasing people. It’s about enhancing the experience… the experience of going to a hockey game.

That’s really what needs to be remembered in any discussion about game presentation, “game entertainment,” blooper reels, music, whatever. You’re paying to see a hockey game. That should be the core of every single thing that happens inside the arena.

It seems at times that’s been lost. It’s Buffalo Sabres Hockey. Sometimes they push too hard on marketing Buffalo, as if there’s some civic duty to show up. More than that, it’s all about the Sabres, and pushing the team and the brand. And you lose what this is all about. What people are buying tickets for. It’s a hockey game. It’s not some event. It’s not an exhibition. It’s two teams playing a game in a large league of other teams.

You want the core of what you’re doing to mean the most. It’s a hockey game. It’s the Sabres against Opponent X. It’s the team that plays home games in Buffalo. If you get your fans embracing the core of what you are, you’ve got them. They’re locked in. They’re not going away.

It shouldn’t be Buffalo > Sabres > Hockey. It needs to be Buffalo < Sabres < Hockey. The most important thing about anyone who walks in those doors is the game they’re about to see. It’s not about the fans. It’s about the game.

460861530_slideHow do you make it more about the game? You tell the story. You put statistics up on the scoreboard before the game instead of showing people playing on their phones in their seats. You show highlights and replays instead of dance cams at every stoppage. During breaks you don’t cut to some kid in the crowd, you cut to the bench and show the players. Impute that what’s happening matters.

Keeping people engaged isn’t about putting a noise meter on the scoreboard. It’s not playing the Chicken Dance and showing people doing it. Let people invest emotionally into what’s going on instead of telling them what to do. Make them want to start a “Let’s Go Buffalo!” chant instead of having the organ do it for them. Creating that culture of organic support is what’s going to make that arena a fun place to be.

The game presentation needs to be exactly that: presenting the game.

The music (which I’ve criticized incessantly as being way too oblivious) needs to be more deliberate. Not deliberate in the way they play “Sweet Caroline” to get people to cheer, but in that it’s chosen specifically to enhance the moment in which it’s chosen. It’s building up to the team taking the ice. It’s playing an energetic song as the team heads to the powerplay. It’s finding a goal song that people will embrace and give them chills when they hear it away from the rink. It’s about not playing some dumb disposable top 40 dance hit right after a fight. It’s maximizing the moment.

Everyone has seen Rudy right? Watch this and think about how the soundtrack to this scene sets the tone. Then, watch it again with the clip muted and some Katy Perry song playing instead. It’s the same visual, but the context is different. That’s what the music should do and why it’s important. It’s not about playing things people like. I could list a bunch of songs that I absolutely love to death that I’d never ever want them to play at a game. It’s about playing what sets the right tone. Keeping the energy flowing. Accentuating what’s happening on the ice.

So we could talk about what song should be on the intro video (I’d pick Foo Fighters’ “Bridge Burning”). Or what they should have as a goal song (The Gaslight Anthem’s “Howl,” obviously) or what to play when the team comes back out on to the ice at intermission or what other random song. We could talk about what fits in each situation, but the thing is, it needs to applied properly.

There hasn’t been that awareness in the past, and it’s still not there. You’re not playing music that people like, you’re supposed to be playing the right music for the room. Getting a disc jockey who can push the right buttons can improve the product in so many ways.

Again, it’s what’s on the ice that’s important. That’s why anything discussed is even a thing. People want to watch hockey. Sports arenas are built to maximize how many people can watch. Everything has evolved from that core concept.

As an organization, everyone that works to put on the show during a game night has extremely minimal control over what the final score is. It’s about framing it to the best possible extent.

I think everyone just wants to be able to go to a game and enjoy it. Find a way to make that happen on a regular basis.

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Posted on February 4, 2015, in Sabres/NHL and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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