The ultimate Western expansion came roughly 170 years ago, when the prospect of gold drove hundreds of thousands of prospectors to California in search of wealth and prosperity.
For the American Hockey League, the trail that was blazed in the 19th century served it well in 2015. It was in San Jose, the site of California’s first state capitol after the gold rush led to statehood in 1850, that AHL president and CEO David Andrews stood and announced his league had cemented its long-held plan to go West.
Beginning with the 2015-16 season, Andrews said, the AHL would incorporate a new Pacific Division, bringing five franchises to California to satisfy a two-pronged agenda: Opening new markets to exploit fan interest, while giving West Coast NHL franchises a minor league base much closer to their homes.
“They’re all good buildings, they’re all good markets,” Andrews said. “They’re established markets … we’re not concerned at all with the quality of markets or the fan base that will be there. The most important thing is our business model in the American Hockey League is really based on our relationships with the 30 NHL teams. We need every NHL team to be really content with the relationship, with the location, with the quality of the development experience for their players. This move has been a long time coming. We’ve had western-based teams that felt it was important for a long time now.”
The expansion brought teams to San Jose, San Diego, Ontario, Stockton and Bakersfield, representing, respectively, the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers.
For the five NHL teams, the new division was a logistical dream come true. Whereas four of the five franchises were previously located in Eastern cities such as Worcester, MA and Manchester, NH (the Bakersfield entry relocated from Oklahoma City), now the three California NHL teams had their primary farm team located within 90 miles of their arena. The Sharks and their AHL team, the Barracuda, actually shared the same building.
“This year, at least from our organization’s [viewpoint], it definitely showed why there’s importance in [having their AHL affiliate close by],” Ontario Reign general manager Rob Blake, who is also the Kings’ assistant GM, told Kings website, Frozenroyalty.net. “First and foremost, it was the attraction—fan support. They’re terrific. You go into Ontario or down to San Diego and you see the excitement because of the attachment to the local NHL team and the proximity.
“The biggest thing for the organization was the presence. There was a [front-office] presence at the majority of practices and games throughout the season, where we might not have always had in Manchester, simply because of proximity. For the development staff, assistant coaches, or management, being able to go down there, whether it was meetings with players, watching practice or watching games, we always had a presence around them.”
As an added bonus, the five new teams injected life into the AHL at the box office. In 2014-15, the Manchester Monarchs played to an average home attendance of 5,621. The Worcester Sharks drew 3,847, the Adirondack Flames 3,642, the Oklahoma City Barons at 3,262 and the Norfolk Admirals 4,752, all among the lowest average marks in the league.
In their first season in the Pacific Division, the San Diego Gulls, formerly Norfolk, were second in the league in average attendance with 8,675 per game, an increase of 82.6 percent. The Ontario Reign was fourth in the league with a mark of 8,570, an increase of 52.5 percent.
While Bakersfield ranked 19th in the league with an average attendance of 5,195, they improved 59.2 percent over Oklahoma City. Stockton ranked 22nd (4,647) and San Jose 24th (4,432) out of 30 AHL teams, but they improved over 2014-15 by 27.6 and 15.2 percent.
“Our ownership [in Anaheim] is stable and invested in the market right away,” former San Diego president Ari Segal said before a Gulls playoff game in April. “There was no risk of, ‘We’re going to give this a shot and in two years, we’re going to go belly-up and leave.’ They’re building a new practice facility, they’re putting in new boards, there’s a new scoreboard, new concessions, new locker rooms, they’re taking care of the players. These people aren’t just coming for a year or two. It’s an investment in the future.
“And with that NHL and American League brand and credibility comes high-quality product. You get people into the building and they’re here to watch those guys on the ice, and those guys are high-quality players. Shea Theodore. John Gibson, an NHL All-Star, Brandon Montour, an AHL first-team player. Not just Minor League players with varying degrees of success, you’re talking about high-celing prospects. When you do all that work to get the customer in the door, then we step back and those guys take it from there.”
It was Segal’s work with revitalizing the San Diego franchise that inspired the Phoenix Coyotes to seek AHL expansion to Arizona for the 2016-17 season, which became a reality in May when the Coyotes purchased the former Springfield, MA, Falcons and relocated the team to Tucson as the Roadrunners.
The Falcons were dead last in average attendance in 2015-16, virtually guaranteeing the sixth entry into the Pacific Division will also strike gold in 2017. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Coyotes brought Segal into their front office this offseason.
“We’ve done our research: tens of thousands of fans in Tucson buy tickets to go and watch the Coyotes play,” Coyotes President Anthony LeBlanc said at a press conference after the AHL’s Board of Governors unanimously approved the move to Tuscon. “If you have that many people purchasing tickets to drive two hours to go see a hockey game, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll have a strong market here. San Diego’s team has really become part of the fabric of the city and surrounding regions. “We’re definitely aiming to do the same with this team.”
Image courtesy of the San Diego Gulls.
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