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Back To The Future: What's "Best For Business" For The Blues And Their AHL Affiliate?

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As promised in last night's paper, your "Game Time" Prospect Department here presents a composite from a series of columns in the print edition about the Blues' developmental organization.

Could the solution to the Blues' affiliate issues be -- literally -- right under Kung Fu Bunny's nose?
Could the solution to the Blues' affiliate issues be -- literally -- right under Kung Fu Bunny's nose?

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In the last several editions of "Tomorrow’s Blues," your "Game Time" Prospect Department has been focusing upon the contrast between the Blues’ player development organization and that of the Blues’ main rival, the Chicago Blackhawks.

The two major points that separate the Blues’ affiliation with the Chicago Wolves from the Hawks’ affiliation with the Rockford IceHogs are one, that the Hawks have retained their first-round draft picks over the years and have consistently assigned those players to the AHL as rookies for development purposes, and two, that the Hawks have almost complete control over all strictly hockey decisions made in Rockford, where the Blues have little say in who coaches and who plays in Rosemont.

We’ve touched on the first point in depth, and begun looking into options whereby the Blues can get back the benefits of having an AHL club under their own control.

The fact that the Blues’ needs are pretty much incompatible with those of the Wolves is unfortunate, but not unexpected. The affiliation with the Wolves, who do not rely on the Blues for financial or administrative support, was probably just what the doctor ordered for a franchise like the Blues that must struggle to break even, to say nothing of turning a profit. Our contention here, however, is that in order for the Blues to become a more successful franchise on and off the ice, they would be wise to follow the example of franchises like the Blackhawks who control the destinies of their prospects with an AHL affiliate that the NHL parent either owns outright, or over which they have full control.

Some Possible Solutions

Last time in this space, we previewed three nearby candidates for a possible AHL expansion club owned by the Blues. In order of proximity, those locations were: St. Charles, Missouri; Springfield, Illinois; and Bloomington, Illinois.

All three cities have strong points in favor of their playing host to an AHL franchise – St. Charles has a modern 10,000-seat building and is literally in the Blues’ back yard; Springfield has name recognition for the Blues’ brand and no other pro or major college sports competition in town; and Bloomington also has a large, modern facility that has been host to a pro or Tier One Junior hockey club in one league or another for the last ten seasons.

All three cities also have their negatives as well. St. Charles’ arena management has not been particularly cooperative with hockey club management in the past, and the last hockey venture at the Family Arena (the CHL St. Charles Chill) was a Mickey Mouse operation that left a bad taste in many peoples’ mouths. Springfield’s largest facility does not have permanent ice, the city has never had a pro hockey club, and several minor-league baseball clubs have gone belly-up playing there in recent years.

The U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington, meanwhile, may have had a hockey tenant for ten years running, but the Bloomington-Normal market is small (less than 125,000) and the teams that have played there have not drawn much better than the high 2000’s – low 3000’s on average. Crowds that size can sustain a USHL franchise, with no player payroll or workman’s comp expenditures, but an AHL franchise will die on the vine drawing crowds of 2700 at home.

Of the three "close-in" potential markets, then, your GTPD would rank Bloomington first, followed by St. Charles and then Springfield. Our personal favorite would be Springfield, being less than an hour’s drive from the home town of both your GTPD and fellow "Game Time" contributor Donut King, but objectively speaking, there are probably too many logistical and perception issues to overcome in Springfield to make an AHL venture a viable one.

Bloomington, for all its market size and attendance issues, would probably have a better chance than St. Charles of succeeding as home to an AHL franchise. The arena management in Bloomington has a decade of experience working with hockey clubs at various levels, and the fact that clubs keep coming back to Bloomington is a good indicator of its value as a market.

Let’s turn now to three markets that are a little further out from St. Louis, but still close enough to be assimilated into the Blues’ "turf."

Kentucky Fried Franchise

Almost due east about 260 miles on I-64 is the Ohio River metropolis of Louisville. Of the cities we’ve listed for consideration as a potential future Blues’ affiliate, Louisville has the distinction of not only being very much like St. Louis in that it’s a major river port, but also having no less than three facilities that are capable of hosting an AHL club.

From smallest to largest, those facilities are Broadbent Arena (6600) and Freedom Hall (about 17,000), both on the grounds of the Kentucky Exposition Center. The largest and newest of the Louisville venues has the worst name imaginable for a pro sports venue, the KFC Yum! Center, and is a brand-new 19,000-seat palace located right on the Louisville riverfront next door to the Hillerich and Bradsby plant where Louisville Slugger baseball bats are made.

Of the potential markets we’ve discussed here, Louisville is the only one that has played host to an AHL club before, the short-lived Panthers who lasted just two years there (1999 to 2001) and played at Freedom Hall. For a few years prior to the Panthers, Louisville hosted an ECHL franchise, the RiverFrogs, who played their home games at Broadbent Arena. Both clubs drew fairly well, averaging between 4000-5000 per game.

The fact that Louisville hasn’t had a hockey tenant anywhere for about 15 years is a minus, as is the fact that Louisville is a basketball-first town. Since the hockey and basketball seasons run pretty much concurrent with each other, there will be a lot of competition in Louisville for the sports fan dollar, and that situation isn’t ideal for a team like the Blues.

On The Banks Of The Ohio...

About a hundred miles downstream from Louisville, and about a two-hour drive from St. Louis, is the southern Indiana metropolis of Evansville. Evansville is a relative newcomer to the hockey world, and has made a rapid rise through the ranks. The city’s first pro hockey club was in something called the All-American Hockey Association in 2008, but by 2010 the franchise had moved up to the Central League and after two years in the CHL moved up to the ECHL concurrent with the opening of the 10,000-seat Ford Center.

There is a great deal to like about Evansville as a potential AHL affiliate. It is a major river port that was founded by French explorers, just like St. Louis, and is a decent-sized market with about 120,000 in the city proper and close to 300,000 in the metro area. The only other pro sports competition in town is a Frontier League baseball team, and there is also the University of Evansville Purple Aces basketball team. The facility is very new and modern, with all the bells and whistles and amenities that a pro sports club could want, and there is even a (brief) history of affiliation with the Blues, as the Blues sent about a half-dozen prospects to Evansville at various times in 2012-13, the first year that the IceMen operated in the ECHL.

The IceMen have drawn well in Evansville since moving up to the ECHL, averaging over 5000 per game in their first two years. Attendance is off just a bit this year (4400 per game so far), but if the Blues have not burned their bridges in Evansville, this fast-rising and centrally-located market could be an ideal match for them.

Livin’ On Tulsa Time...

Tulsa, Oklahoma has had pro hockey off and on since 1928, and perhaps surprisingly, mostly "on." The original Tulsa Oilers played in the American Hockey Association (with the old St. Louis Flyers) from 1928 to 1932, and won the league championship the first three years they were in business. After a one-year hiatus, a new Oilers franchise was admitted to the AHA, and they played eight seasons before closing up shop in 1942.

The Oilers returned again for the 1945-46 season, this time in the old pro version of the USHL. That franchise lasted until 1951, when the entire league went bust. Tulsa went without pro hockey for thirteen years after that, the longest hockey-less stretch in the Oil Capital of the World since pro hockey first came to town, before the Oilers were once again reborn in the Central Hockey League.

From 1964 to 1984, the Tulsa Oilers were a cornerstone of the old CHL, winning three league championships, making the finals seven times in total, and missing the playoff just six times in that stretch. The league closed up shop after the 1983-84 season, and Tulsa again experienced a hockey dry spell, this time lasting until 1992 when the CHL was reborn.

The 1992-93 Oilers were coached by Blues’ legend Garry Unger, and brought home yet another championship for the city, the last that a Tulsa club has won. The Oilers would remain a member of the CHL until 2014, when once again, the league folded out from under them. The franchise was absorbed by the ECHL along with several other CHL clubs -- including the Blues’ current ECHL affiliate, the Quad City Mallards -- for the 2014-15 season.

The current version of the Oilers plays at the new and modern BOK (Bank of Oklahoma) Center, a 17,000-seat venue located in the heart of Tulsa’s thriving downtown. The BOK Center is an architectural marvel, designed by the same people who designed the 1400-foot-tall Petronas Towers in Malaysia, and it has received numerous awards and recognition for both its design and the management of the facility. The Oilers consistently draw well over 5000 to their home games, and have in both the CHL and ECHL since moving into the BOK Center.

Summary

All three of these cities have much to offer, with large, modern facilities that have a history of being good draws for hockey. Louisville is probably the least attractive because of the intense focus on basketball in the city, and you could really flip a coin between Evansville and Tulsa.

Or... the Blues could go back to what they were doing in the 70's, and place their affiliate in Kansas City. Kansas City is about the same distance from St. Louis as Tulsa, and also like Tulsa, has a brand-new modern 17,000-seat building in the Sprint Center. Unlike Tulsa, however, the Sprint Center currently has no pro sports tenant.

The chief downside to Kansas City is that there is already an ECHL franchise in Independence, Missouri (the Missouri Mavericks), one that is doing well both on and off the ice. There's not much evidence to suggest that the Kansas City area has the fanbase to support two minor-league hockey franchises, and the Mavericks will, as their name implies, put up a fight if the AHL tries to muscle in on what they see as "their" territory.

There is one more alternative, however, that we have yet to discuss.

Home Sweet Home

Two current AHL clubs, the San Jose Barracuda and the Manitoba Moose, play their home games at the NHL parent team’s rink. Now that the precedent has been set, this is perhaps something the Blues might want to consider if they are able to acquire their own AHL franchise... and something that, in hindsight, they probably should have considered doing rather than unloading the AHL franchise that they owned and were playing out of Peoria.

The AHL’s current average attendance is 5,723 patrons per venue per event; Manitoba is averaging 7,397 per night, good for ninth place in the AHL (just behind the eighth-place Wolves, in the league’s second-biggest market, at 7,432 per game), while San Jose lags behind just a bit at a still-respectable 4,225 per game.

Placing an AHL affiliate in the Scottrade Center -- which would have to nod to tradition and be named the St. Louis Eagles -- would mean that the building would be occupied with between four and seven thousands butts in the seats on at least another 30 nights per year. The Blues and Eagles could also have a few double-headers where the Eagles play against the AHL affiliate of whomever the Blues opponent is that evening.

What kind of crowds do you think they could draw for a Rivalry Day in St. Louis, where the Eagles take on the Rockford IceHogs at 3:00, followed by Blues-Blackhawks at 7:30? Or an early game between the Eagles and Texas Stars, followed by Blues vs. Dallas thereafter.

The St. Louis area is growing stronger as a hockey town day by day, and something like this would definitely raise the interest level. The Columbias and Springfields on both sides of the river would become more fertile hockey soil, raising more future Blues and future NHLers from Stanton, Missouri to Staunton, Illinois and all points in between.

Wrapping Things Up...

The more that your GTPD tosses around the idea of putting an AHL affiliate into the Scottrade Center alongside the Blues, the better the idea sounds.

I’d like to hear from someone "in the know" just how much it costs to open and staff the Scottrade Center for an event, because that would be an important factor in calculating what kind of attendance numbers would be necessary in order to the make the project worthwhile.

It’d also be worthwhile to know how much extra cost, if any, is involved in having the building open and staffed for however long is necessary to stage a double-header with the AHL affiliate taking the early game, and the Blues later in the evening. The thinking here is that the building is open anyway, so any additional costs (three extra hours’ pay for concessions personnel and ushers, for example) should be minimal.

Say, for example, that it costs $100,000 to have the building opened and staffed for six hours on game day. If the AHL affiliate -- let’s call them the St. Louis Eagles -- charged an average of $15 for a ticket ($20 for lower bowl, $15 for first ten rows of upper bowl) then they would need to average about 7000 per game to break even.

But, if those costs were absorbed by the Blues on game day by being part of a doubleheader, then the Eagles would stand a much better chance of turning a profit on the doubleheader days, especially considering that those games would be Saturday and Sunday games against well-established rivals, which are likely to draw larger crowds.

If the Eagles could draw, say, 8500 for each of, let’s say, eight doubleheader games (two each vs. Chicago/Rockford, Nashville/Milwaukee, Dallas/Texas and Minnesota/Iowa), well, 8500 times 15 is $127,500, times eight is $1,020,000.

As few as eight doubleheader games, in which the Blues would absorb the costs of opening and staffing the Scottrade Center, would pay for ten games in which the Eagles would have to absorb those costs themselves, even if they drew absolutely no one for those games (assuming the $100K per game figure, which may or may not be in the ballpark). That covers operating costs for 18 home games, which is just about half of an AHL home schedule.

Once again, bear in mind that the $100K cost figure for opening and staffing the building could be way off. But if it’s anywhere close to accurate, these hypothetical numbers are an indication that an AHL affiliate playing alongside the Blues in the Scottrade Center could very well be made to work.

What do you think? Let us know with the poll questions below, and in the Comments section.