The costs of operating a minor league team in San Francisco have caught up to the San Francisco Bulls, according to the Chronicle’s Susan Slusser (yes, our Susan Slusser). The Sharks ECHL affiliate Bulls, who have called the Cow Palace home for the last 1 1/2 seasons, may have a deal to sell the team to a new ownership group by next week. In turn, the team would move its home games to either Oracle Arena or Save Mart Center in Fresno.
The Bulls were always going to be an interesting test of viability in arguably the most expensive place to live and work in the nation. Sure, the Cow Palace is much closer to Visitacion Valley than Pacific Heights, but given the very low salaries for players and the high cost of living around SF, making the team work was going to be a struggle. Coach/GM/Owner Pat Curcio also cited the out-of-pocket improvements the team made at the arena, the big ticket item being a very nice center-hung scoreboard.
The view above comes from a free seat offer I received at an A’s game in 2012. Back then the Bulls were just launching, offering a cheaper hockey alternative to the Sharks. The seating bowl was practically the same as when the Sharks played their first two seasons in the NHL, or the short-lived SF Spiders. Ever the utilitarian venue, the Cow Palace was compact for hockey and prone to get fairly loud. Oddly enough, it’s perhaps too large for minor league hockey, which realistically is best served by a 5,000-7,000 seat venue in the Bay Area. The Bulls even removed at least a third of the Cow Palace’s seats by taking the “floor” seats shown above and converting them to a beer garden, right behind the two team benches. The beer garden had previously been located at one end of the rink.
Should the franchise move to Oakland or Fresno, they would be moving into even larger arenas. Save Mart Center seats 14,000 for hockey or ice shows, though it’s likely that the upper deck would be curtained off for hockey games. The same could be said for Oracle Arena, which due to its basketball-centric seating bowl layout, has thousands of obstructed view seats for hockey.
Last year’s A’s FanFest had the arena laid out in the way you’d expect a hockey game to be staged. At one end, retractable seats would be folded back to accommodate the rink’s 200′ x 85′ dimensions. Seats above the retracted sections would have obstructed views. This is a similar arrangement to what the NY Islanders will have when they move into Barclays Center. If the Bulls move to Oakland, it’ll be interesting to see what pricing the team will offer and the turnout in response. The last minor league team to call the arena home was the Oakland Skates, a roller hockey team that ceased operations when the arena renovation project started in 1996.
The Warriors would have to sign off on the Bulls’ move, and the Bulls would have to reschedule some home dates to defer to the Warriors. There’s also the matter of laying the basketball court on top of an ice sheet, which would have to be done on occasion. Typically, the Warriors’ schedule has avoided any conflicts. For instance, this year a six-game road trip coincides with a Disney ice show in late February. Condensation on hardwood basketball floors can be an issue even in the newest arenas, and Oracle doesn’t have a ton of experience doing these types of switchovers.
Fresno could end up being the best place in the long run, because of the lower cost of living for players and Save Mart Center’s hockey-friendly layout. In Fresno, the team would have instant Central Valley rivalries with the Stockton Thunder and Bakersfield Condors, both teams that play in smaller, newer arenas. Friend of the blog @wacchampions also noted that the team could play at Selland Arena, which underwent an AEG-funded renovation to better support ice shows and ice hockey.
If this is the end for the Bulls, it’ll be another brief stay for minor league team at the Cow Palace. The venue is run not by a city or county, but rather the State Department of Food and Agriculture, which also operates Cal Expo. There’s little local sentimentality to how they run the Cow Palace, making the arena fully a bottom-line-first affair. For the sake of NorCal hockey fans, I hope the team doesn’t shut down, and that it will resurface either in Oakland or Fresno, providing them an opportunity to thrive.