Welcome to Black Friday. Perhaps you have done some of your holiday shopping by now. Or plan to do so too. And maybe that list of Christmas wishes or gift-giving ideas includes tickets to see the New Jersey Devils. A team that has, well, underwhelmed so far in 2023-24. Right before Thanksgiving, the Devils lollygagged their way to a 0-4 loss in Detroit. Even if they won, they would be in the not-so-great spot of outside of the playoffs by Thanksgiving - a rule of thumb for how the rest of the season may go. Between bad goaltending; a lack of effort off the puck to cover men, tie up sticks, and communicate on defense; and weirdly inconsistent offensive displays (2 shots on in net in the third, really?), the picture for the Devils on the ice looks grim. Still, there is a lot of season left. If the Devils can turn it around, such as tonight, then some of these worries may begin fade. Winning does solve quite a bit on the ice.
Off the ice, the Devils have had a similar lack of effort on display the game experience at the Prudential Center, the arena owned by the organization and so I will use both interchangeably in this post. With the Devils coming off a 52-win season, a playoff victory over Our Hated Rivals, and budding superstars in The Big Deal, fans have filled the Rock from the start of the season. It also helps that the other local pro sports teams have stunk, including both NFL franchises. Yet, have the people in charge of the Prudential Center - which would be the Devils taken advantage? No. Not from my own experience or what I have heard and read from the other People Who Matter. This may have been something I should have focused on for a while now. But better to address it now than just close the window and hope no one notices.
Context: The Audience
I will be upfront and state that I am not normal. As evidence, I give you this blog. Even without the blog, I am a season ticket holder (STH) with one (1) seat. I have been a STH in some capacity since the Rock opened in 2007 and I have had 1 season. This is not normal as most people with season tickets tend to own two or more. While I do not get out to as many games as I did in the past due to life, I go to enough to make me feel that the cost of a season ticket is justified. I am stating all of this because my own experience and expectations may not align with what most fans would experience or expect.
Even being a STH is abnormal. While a good part of the fanbase that the Devils rely on for filling seats are STHs, I would venture that most fans are people who can only go to a few games per season. They can and are absolutely be hardcore fans but for various reasons like cost, time, and/or distance can only make it out to a few games per season. Or even just one game per season. Then there are people who go to the games who are new to the sport or the Devils. They may go to just the one game and their time there will dictate whether they even want to go back. Even those visiting fans, who are mostly cool unless they wear Ranger blue or Flyer orange or cannot behave in public, will visit the Rock just once. The point is that for a STH like me, I can go to a game and understand when the experience is not the best and still go to games. For others, the Prudential Center and the Devils are getting only a few or even just one opportunity to make an impression.
Please keep that context in mind, as I detail the fan experience for 2023-24.
A Walkthrough to Attend a Devils Game at the Rock This Season
First, one must have ticket or tickets to attend a game. As with many organizations, Ticketmaster is often used as the platform for buying tickets. Secondary market sites like Seat Geek or StubHub are absolutely options. The Devils still employ tiered pricing. Which makes some sense. A game against Our Hated Rivals will draw more of a crowd so that game is going to be more expensive than, say, a Wednesday night in December against Columbus. That makes the Devils more in revenue at the gate. The issue is that, well, tickets are still pretty expensive. Maybe it pales in comparison to Our Hated Rivals at Madison Square Garden, but the average ticket price in Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5 (my STH) works out to around $77. Of course, you can get seats in the upper bowl or discounted ones on the secondary market. The point is that getting in the door is not cheap. This is an issue that every entertainment option is wrestling with since most are aware they can pocket the money and watch the game on TV or find some video of the concert or some recorded performance for a lot less money.
Anyway, that does not mean the ticket price is the cost for going to a game. Maybe you want to drive to Newark. You are likely going to have to pay for parking, which is going to vary based on the lot’s location. You could park on the street for free, and I wish you luck if you do. For those who prefer a train, well, that means giving NJ Transit money to go and you are stuck to their schedule. The Devils do not control that but it does add to the overall cost to actually attending a Devils game.
What the Devils do control is inside their own building. Per NHL rules, you will have to go through a metal detector. You will also have to abide by the bag rules of the arena. If your bag is too big, then you can either go back to your car with it or pay the Devils to store it in a locker outside of the arena. Then you go up to the main concourse level. You are free to walk around. Some areas are more packed than others depending on whether it is by the escalator to the upper concourse or the area between a bar outside of the Fire Lounge and Sections 1 and 2. Stairs are accessible to go up to the upper concourse and are generally light on foot traffic - until after the game.
Merchandise and food are available in the arena. You may be more inclined to get some merch like a t-shirt or even a jersey if you are visiting for just the one time. Or maybe someone asked for it and you figure better this than ordering it. Let me forewarn you, it is not cheap. Neither is the food.
While common in most arenas, the price of the food or beverage is going to be way more than what you would pay elsewhere for the same thing. Want a tallboy at the game? I hope you have a Jackson. Actually, scratch that. The Rock is cashless, you will need a credit or debit card. And possibly some help to use their kiosks to actually pay for them. Said kiosk will ask you for a tip even if you are the one to get the item you are paying no cashier for. And if it is food, you will be rolling the dice about whether the food is properly prepared this season. More on that in a bit.
So you sit down with your food, your beverage, and realize that you may have already reached triple digits in spending before a single event happens in the hockey game. If you are early enough, you can see warm-up skates from both teams. And a zamboni after. What follows is a routine presentation. After watching a rotating logo on the biggest indoor arena screen in North America, there will be a video explaining arena rules. This is shot like it was Clerks and is voiced by Kevin Smith. It is the same as last season and your mileage may vary on how much of it is actually enforced. There will be a highlight video cut with the same mindset of the 2000s. Hits! Movement! Maybe some goals - possibly even from this season! For this season, Patrick Warburton appear on video and cut a promo where his words tend to trail off at the end of sentences. Enough to make you wonder if the team and Warburton even offered to do another take. Then there is an anthem and a game actually begins.
During said game, you’ll hear recorded and organ-ish music during the breaks. Replays, brought to you by the NJ Lottery, may show you things that have happened that you may have missed. I say may because if it was against the Devils, you may not. There will be little contests, t-shirt tosses, and other small entertaining bits. Maybe even a song from the past that fans will sing along to. Fun if you have never seen it before. Less so if you recognize it all as the same stuff from last season.
Intermission comes and you decide to go to the bathroom. You notice the long lines for food and drinks and perhaps even the restrooms. Are they clean? Maybe? Are all stalls available? Also maybe? Are they likely going to have paper towels after washing your hands? Probably not as the game goes on. Do messes get cleaned up timely? No. And should you walk around, you may notice little things where you wonder if anyone has done any touchups since the arena opened in 2007.
You get back to your seat, watch through to the end, and then go on home. You will notice I did not mention how the Devils played or whether they won or not. That is on purpose. Obviously, the game is what is a main driver as to whether or not someone enjoyed themselves at the game or not. But the other things - the food, the prices, the spaces, and the entertainment outside of the game - contribute in making a first impression for the Devils. Is that worth possibly spending over $100? Or over $50 or $75 if you are smarter about your expenses? Your mileage may vary. But for this season, it may be no.
More Ranting about Food
One of the biggest complaints from the last few seasons from the People Who Matter who attend the Rock was the food. The Devils’ contract with their previous concessions vendor was ending and that vendor absolutely acted like they were not going to get renewed. Service was iffy, the quality of the food was unimpressive for its price, and it was rarely good enough for fans to be happy with it. Which is a deep drop off from when the Rock opened and the team sought out local food vendors to supplant their concessions vendor, providing variety and different tastes at the Rock. In addition to what would become a legendary segment on MSG+: Chico Eats. This made sense since this is New Jersey, a state dense with restaurants, diners, and dives. Drive-ins, not so much, sorry Guy.
The organization heard these issues and made a big deal about their new deal with Levy Restaurants. New dishes! New partners! Better self-service kiosks! Has it been better over the prior season?
No! In the recent home game against Our Hated Rivals, not every concessions stand and kiosk was even open. There was not enough people to staff them so some were shuttered. This on a Saturday night against Our Hated Rivals, a near-mortal lock for a sellout crowd. That meant plenty of lost revenue and unhappy people not getting to overspend on something like chicken tenders and fries. Not to mention those self-service kiosks often have a person right by them to guide people as fans have not found it intuitive. Also, not a nice trick to ask for a tip on top of it since the customer may be doing most of the actual work.
Let us go back to those tendies and fries for another, more significant issue. Some of the People Who Matter have been subjected to undercooked chicken, hot dogs, and other foods. Whether on X, on r/devils, or elsewhere, I read this and remain baffled as to how it is allowed. Past seasons had issues of food being overcooked to a point of not being easy to eat. This is arguably worse. Going to a hockey game is expensive enough. Who wants to add potential salmonella to the cost? I do not know about you, but it surely does not make me want to eat any of their food. Assuming it even exists because not everything listed here does yet.
I will agree that spending way too much to buy a Pepsi or a pair of cookies at the game is not a good idea. I will absolutely agree that if you can get a bite to eat elsewhere before (or after) the game, then you really should. This is New Jersey and the Rock is surrounded by great options for food, both local and chains. The issue is that not everyone can do that, and fans may want to eat at the game to have something as they watch it. I do not even drink alcohol and I am stunned that it costs as much as it does to buy a can of it. At least the Levy Restaurants people have not found a way to make that dangerous to consume.
I will also agree that the issue is more with the vendor than the Devils. I understand it is difficult to staff for retail for a job that is far from consistent like hockey games. And mistakes may happen as a result. Then again, other arenas do not seem to have this issue and fans are not going to X proclaiming their $20 chicken tenders are pink on the inside. The Devils are the ones that hired Levy. They are ultimately responsible even if they have outsourced that function. That this persists is in line with watching a veteran defenseman look entirely lost in their own end for first time in years for a Devils GA this season.
Fix Up Your Appearance, Please
While the food issues may be Levy’s fault and, by extension, the Devils for choosing them, there is more minor yet persistent issue at the Rock. The general appearance of the Rock. To the Devils’ credit, they have made some significant improvements over the years. Digital ribbons around the levels. An absolutely massive scoreboard. Loge boxes. Pub areas along the concourse. All signs of legitimate investment and wanting to keep the arena up to date. I encourage it and applaud that effort.
This is more about the more minor points of maintenance. Knowing whether or not the bathroom will have all of its stalls available or if a few will be covered up by a garbage bag for months. Knowing whether or not the floors stay clean or if you’re getting wet shoes in answering nature’s call. Knowing whether there will be something to dry your hands after you wash them. These are points I have witnessed personally over the years and these were not common signs in the first few years of the Rock.
This also includes generally how clean the arena is. The seating has a concrete base and heaven knows what has touched those surfaces. But are the seats as clean as they could be? Are the railings for stairs cleaned up before the next event? Some areas, like the club sections and luxury boxes, are definitely cleaner than others. And I more than understand that trying to keep up with the massive foot traffic of a concourse is hard. But because it is hard, it is worth doing because these little things do add up to a person’s perception of a building. This is true whether it is a store, a church, a courthouse, or a hockey arena. I think most can forgive something that happened recently, but leaving things unchecked or not fully cleaned for multiple nights makes one wonder where the effort is in all of this.
Appearance also goes into the videos played on the board. I know the presentation team has put in a lot of work and does try to stay current. But this season has seen them fall back on what they have made in years past. While I can understand wanting to stick with something successful, it adds to the perception of the organization not trying as hard as they could out there. Again, is it a major thing? No. But it adds up, especially on repeated viewings. Doubly so for the rotating logo in place of anything like a replay or leveraging something like Bryce Salvador breaking down a play or highlighting past moments against the opponent.
And in writing this rant, I just thought of another: what about the website? We know the Devils have theme nights associated with group sales and other outreach programs. We know they have theme nights that used to have pregame warmup jerseys but we know who did the rug-pull that led to the NHL ending that innocuous practice. We know the Devils even host bands to play on the main concourse at intermission - even local hardcore bands like Jawdust. Why is this information not on the team’s website? Why give the digital appearance that these things are not happening only to be a kind of a surprise when people show up? Even if it only moves a few extra seats, it’s worth adding some text to the schedule or making another page to include that kind of thing. It may not be in person or in the arena, but it is another angle of the appearance issues of the Devils. Again, on its own, it may not be a big deal - but it all adds up.
Whether the Devils want to admit it or not, their competition for the Prudential Center and how fans experience their hockey games is not just other hockey arenas. It is all of the other sports arenas. Fair or not, the Prudential Center will be compared by those who have attended other places. This is how a fan can honestly say they do not mind the prices because their other point of reference of an arena is MSG. Or the flow of the people on the concourse because all they know is the very narrow Red Bull Arena. This is also how a fan can say they have been to, say, Enterprise Arena in St. Louis, and wonder how come the Devils just cannot do food like that. Or TD Garden in Boston and wonder why the Rock cannot be well kept like that one. I would gather that those who have been to multiple arenas elsewhere will have more reason to be critical of the Rock.
And to that end, the Devils organization in charge of the facility, the concessions, the videos on the board, and all of the other things the team does outside of the game on the rink has to constantly chase a moving target. Fans are fickle; yet, for the amount of money they are paying to go to a game, I think they are right to demand a high-end game experience. I would go as far as to say that is crucial for the business of the Devils and the Prudential Center. Hockey operations is one side of the business. While how the team plays will be a key reason why fans come back or why fans spend money to see them play, the arena side of the business needs to make it as pleasant as possible to attend the game. This means making sure the bathrooms are clean, the food vendors are actually there, the food is actually safe to eat, and the presentations are not carrying the air of having done this all before. Complacency is bad on the ice and also off the ice.
Which is ultimately my sentiment from going to games by myself with my STH that I have maintained for over a decade and a half. What I and other fans are getting this season shows an honest lack of effort in some areas of the fan experience in going to a game. Some more significant than others. And it is such a failure because the Devils organization has more control over this than whether or not Brendan Smith wants to use his perceived Grit, Toughness, Heart, and Veteran Presence to tie up Jimmy Vesey’s stick. (Reminder: He did not.) I think the Devils’ perceived quality - which is fading now as I think the People Who Matter realize this season is going to be more of a struggle than expected - made it easy for the organization to look past these issues. After all, the Rock has been largely full and the people paid their money for it. I think that is shortsighted and the Devils lost opportunities to make the best possible first impressions for fans that otherwise may come back if impressed with the Prudential Center. And, again, this aligns with how the team has played on the ice so far this season - an organization not willing to put in the hard work to make things happen. This is sadder because edible & available food, clean areas, and more up to date appearances are easier to achieve than winning hockey games against opponents who are trying to beat you.
Of course, that is my own impression. Maybe you are more than satisfied with the Rock this season and I am off the mark. Maybe the on-ice product is such a big driver that these issues, even if resolved, would not move the proverbial needle. If you feel that way, then so be it. I can understand that perspective. And if there are other issues I am missing that you have had with the Rock or how the Devils handle their games outside of the actual game, then I want to know what they are. That may represent a larger issue too. I just want my favorite sports team to stop lollygagging, stop telling me they want to do better, and make like Nike and just do it. Both on and off the ice.
That concludes my rant. I assure you, the next Friday post will be much more about the Devils team that plays on the ice and how they have done. Given that it is a month in review for November, it will almost definitely not be a positive one. So it goes. Please leave your reactions and other thoughts about the Prudential Center’s game experience this season in the comments. Thank you for reading.
P.S. What about the photos of visiting fans on the ice? Look, if groups pay their money to the Devils, then what care I. I agree with what Dan said on the last Hockey at the Rock about it, it does not matter to me.