Category Archives: Hockey

SF Bulls minor league hockey team could fold, move to Oakland or Fresno

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.

Seats near ice level are not well pitched, creating some bad viewing angles

Seats near ice level are not well pitched at the Cow Palace, creating some bad viewing angles. These seats have been replaced by a beer garden.

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.

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Panorama of Oracle Arena during FanFest, showing the outline of the ice rink

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.

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Ice hockey history on display at the Cow Palace

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.

Happy Anniversary Shark Tank!

Saturday, September 7 was a fairly ho-hum day at the newly-renamed SAP Center, formerly HP Pavilion, Compaq Center, and San Jose Arena. There was an event, a mariachi festival called Vivafest. Preseason hockey wasn’t scheduled to start for two weeks, the regular season for a month.  It seemed like there wasn’t much to celebrate.

Shortly after the first puck drop on Saturday night at SAP Center

Shortly after the first puck drop on Saturday night vs. Ottawa at SAP Center

Oh, but there was. September 7, 2013 marked the 20th anniversary of the opening of the arena, affectionally known as the Shark Tank (the Sharks would play their first home game on 9/30/93). Though it’s 20 years old, the place still looks nearly new and spiffy, with Sharks ownership and the San Jose Arena Authority committed to maintaining the venue to ensure its place as a premier sports and concert venue, and to keep up with rival franchises. Even though the structure is mostly precast, poured and block concrete, the glass entries and color highlights make the place feel more friendly and inviting than a largely concrete structure should. The steel cladded façade proved to be an aesthetic mistake, though it shimmers nicely at night. I joked shortly after the arena opened to some friends that the City needed to figure out a way to keep the arena in the dark all the time.

Since its opening, the Tank has hosted multiple NCAA basketball men’s regionals, the women’s Final Four, the US Gymnastics and Figure Skating Championships, pro wrestling, boxing, and MMA, and countless concerts. While in my relative youth I had reservations about the publicly-funded nature of the arena, the fact that Sharks ownership (led by the late George Gund at the time) spent a good sum of money upfront to ensure the arena would an industry leader, and the venue has held its place as a highly competitive, well-run NHL arena ever since. Unlike most other arenas, the team ran the venue themselves, parlaying that experience into the acquisition and operation of other venues in the area.

Circulation was always simpler at the Tank than at Oracle Arena thanks to wider concourses.

Circulation was always simpler at the Tank than at Oracle Arena thanks to wider concourses and a simplified layout.

SAP Center didn’t mention the moment on either its Facebook page or Twitter timeline. There was no special event. Maybe this was because the Sharks franchise celebrated its own 20-year anniversary in 2011, which would’ve made this celebration a bit much. Perhaps it’s a mark of the Hasso Plattner’s ownership. Whatever the case, San Jose should’ve celebrated the anniversary. It’s the best thing San Jose’s now shuttered Redevelopment Agency has accomplished. It’s worthy of praise, so I’ll do it here, admittedly in belated manner.

Happy Anniversary, Shark Tank! Here’s to 20 more years of great events at the arena. San Jose wouldn’t be the same without you. Take a bow.

The new SAP Center sign, installed Friday, replaced the HP Pavilion moniker.

The new SAP Center sign, installed Friday, replaced the HP Pavilion moniker.

The Kid

I know we’re all hurting from Game 4. Let’s just take a minute to appreciate this.

Tomas Hertl is 19 years old from the Czech Republic. He scored 4 goals against the Rangers. He’s the youngest to score four goals since 1988. He’s already a Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) candidate. Once in a while we’re blessed to see truly transcendent talents like Joe Montana, Rickey Henderson, or Barry Bonds. Like Yoenis Cespedes, Hertl speaks little English. Like the aforementioned legends, this kid can carry a team, sell tickets, do the unthinkable. He’s that good. Just drink it in, and know that he’s probably going to be a Shark for a long, long time.

News for 7/24/13

A lot of smaller items this week that I felt should go into a single post.

  • Added 7/25 1:48 PM – Cowboys Stadium will now be known as AT&T Stadium, at a rate of $17-19 million per year (length unknown). For reference, Levi’s bought the naming rights at the 49ers stadium for $11 million/year, while AT&T Park’s deal was for roughly $2 million/year through 2024. Oracle Arena and SAP Center have deals worth $3 million/year.
  • Added 7/25 1:40 PMReally good interview on Athletics Nation with A’s Sales & Marketing veep Jim Leahey about how hard it is to sell tickets for the A’s at the Coliseum.
  • Added 8:40 PM – Completely forgot that the A’s have changed the gate opening schedule on Fridays to 4:30. Normally the gates open 90 minutes before first pitch on weekdays, 2 hours before first pitch on weekends. This is to accommodate a request by many fans (including me) to observe home team batting practice, featuring Derby winner Yoenis Cespedes. Home BP is usually held a little over 2 hours before first pitch in most ballparks. For now the time change is only for Fridays. It could change, but remember that for day-after-night games many teams choose to cancel BP. As luck would have it, I’m flying into OAK from Salt Lake City at 3 on Friday, so I’ll have a chance to watch Cespy do his thing.
  • The Chicago City Council approved a controversial $500 million renovation of Wrigley Field, which will include a big electronic scoreboard, increased signage and advertising, and the development of a hotel and office complex across Clark St from the ballpark.
  • The Port of Oakland’s settlement with SSA was approved and accompanied by a celebratory press release by the terminal operator. Though there’s an interesting bit at the end:

The settlement agreement “has nothing to do with the baseball park,” (Port Board President Ces) Butner said. “We have not determined what we are going to do with Howard Terminal yet. We are going to have to figure out what it will be.”

Tim Kawakami also tweeted this:

Kawakami went on to talk about different uses and configurations for the land. Oakland wanted two downtowns with Coliseum City. I guess they can also explore two Coliseums (Colisea?). It’s all fun to think about until somebody has to pay the bill.

  • According to an annual Harris Poll, the A’s are tied for last (27th) in terms of team popularity in MLB. The poll was conducted in mid-June with 2,210 American fans. Predictably, the Yankees and Red Sox are at the top. The Giants rank 10th in the survey, though they’ve moved around a lot over the years.
  • The Giants played a rare doubleheader at AT&T Park, which occurred thanks to a prior rainout in Cincinnati. While the first game was played as a regularly scheduled home game, the second game had the Reds playing as the home team and batting last. A different type of doubleheader is scheduled for this weekend, with the A’s playing the Angels at 12:05 (national Fox TV game) and the Giants hosting the Cubs at 6:05. I’m seriously considering going to both as I’ve done this doubleheader the past two years.
  • SF State professor and longtime Oakland political scenester Joe Tuman is expected to announce that he is running for Mayor today. An announcement is coming at Oakland City Hall at noon. Earlier today I had said something about San Jose’s antitrust lawsuit and MLB’s leverage, which aroused this response from Tuman:
  • Not to be forgotten, Oakland City Councilman Larry Reid has been waiting for a “sign from God” to put him in the race, though his increasingly snarky commentary at public meetings suggests that this is a mere formality. Having both Reid and Tuman in there could make the race entertaining, to say the least.
  • Sacramento arena proponents have accused anti-arena petition gatherers of lies and dirty pool in making claims about the ESC plan. Neither side looks great, as the anti-arena group may have out-of-town support and the “facts” that the pro-arena group are citing are projections, not facts. Yeesh.
  • Despite the City of Detroit officially filing for bankruptcy, it’s likely that $283 million in TIF-based funding for a new downtown Red Wings arena will go through. All sorts of wrong with that.

More if it comes.

News for 7/3/13

There’s a lot of news during this holiday week. I figured it would be best to drop it all in here. First up, A’s news.

MLB announced today that it has retained John Keker of SF firm Keker & Van Nest to represent baseball in the San Jose antitrust lawsuit. Keker has a long and colorful history as one of the country’s top trial lawyers, and would be a formidable opponent for Joe Cotchett if the suit ever went to trial. Or, as a former partner at KVN, Wendy Thurm (@hangingsliders), put it:

Keker’s first statement about the case description of himself as a frequent defense lawyer is also colorful:

Keker also has his hands full defending Standard & Poor’s in the federal government’s lawsuit over allegedly fraudulent practices. Let the games begin, I say.

Besides MLB announcement, if you were worried that the lawsuit would leave the news cycle, there are new articles from the LA Times and Forbes covering the matter. In other news:

  • Members of the ILWU (Longeshoremen’s Union) are opposing the SSA settlement, which would close Howard Terminal and potentially convert it to a ballpark site. The union’s complaint is that the net effect of the settlement and consolidation is the loss of union jobs. This contention has evidently forced the Port of Oakland to again delay voting on the settlement to July 11.
  • BART’s still on strike. Last night’s announced attendance was 17,273, the smallest crowd since the end of May. Tonight’s a fireworks game with the 4th tomorrow, so crowds should be hefty despite the lack of BART.

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Away from the A’s…

  • The City of Glendale, Arizona, approved a 15-year lease deal to further subsidize the Coyotes NHL club, keeping them in town until at least 2018. The team has an out clause after only five years if they demonstrate they’ve lost $50 million over those first five years. In return, the team will be renamed the Arizona Coyotes. While the NHL continues to own the team in the interim until a purchase is finalized by Renaissance Sports & Entertainment, a new arena operator has been found in titan Global Spectrum.
  • Folks in Seattle were following the happenings in Glendale closely and were ready to pounce if no agreement could be made. Now the Emerald City and Chris Hansen are officially 0-for-2 in attempts to lure franchises to Puget Sound.
  • The City of Anaheim and the Angels are jointly funding a study to determine the cost to keep Angel Stadium up-to-date. Initial estimates have the cost to renovate Angel Stadium at $120-150 million. After the Dodgers spent $100 million to renovate clubhouses and scoreboards, I’d be surprised if the Angel Stadium tab was only $150 million.
  • As the cost to build a AAA ballpark in El Paso rises, the new owners of the franchise backed away from giving $12 million in personal guarantees towards the project.
  • Curbed has a neat pictorial retrospective on the various ballparks that have called New York home over the decades.

And a quick announcement: I plan to be in New York for a few days around August 24-25 Labor Day weekend. I’m still locking down the plans. The Yankees are in town that weekend and the Mets prior to that. I’m working to take in games at both ballparks, and some US Open tennis action if I can fit it in. If you’re there at that time, drop me a line (email, Twitter) and we can have a chat and/or take in a game.

Millionaires need not apply

In 1960, Arnold Johnson sold the A’s to Charlie Finley for $4 million ($31 million today).

In 1981, Finley sold the team to Wally Haas for $12.4 million (also about $31 million today).

Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann bought the A’s from Haas in 1995 for $95 million ($140 million in 2013), followed by Lew Wolff and John Fisher buying the franchise in 2005 for $180 million ($210 million today). If you’re looking for hockey-stick style growth, owning a pro sports franchise is a good bet.

That makes the big news this week out of Sharks camp rather eye-opening. Partners Kevin Compton and Stratton Sciavos are selling their stakes to Hasso Plattner, who has until now been the silent money in the ownership group. A reason cited was ongoing losses sustained by Sharks Sports and Entertainment, totaling $15 million during the 2011-12 season. Assuming that they’re not engaged in accounting hijinks, Compton’s and Sciavos’s individual losses (or cash calls) were probably in the $1-2 million range. While I can’t find a published net worth of either, it’s clear that neither approaches the wealth of Plattner, the SAP head (and Larry Ellison foil) who is worth $7.2 billion, more than the Giants’ Charles Johnson and Fisher combined. For Compton and Sciavos, $1 million is nothing to take lightly.

Plattner even admitted today that hockey teams don’t make money. A man of his wealth can truly own a team like the Sharks and absorb a loss without batting an eyelash. He also owns CordeValle golf course in South County (San Martin), several other golf courses in Africa and other hotels. That doesn’t mean he’ll start going crazy with free agent signings in the future, but he can afford to be less concerned about having to make cash calls when the time comes. The Sharks aren’t hurt by turnout at HP Pavilion. They’re hurt by lagging national and local TV revenues. Both of those can improve over time, but they’re definitely playing a long game, not one where a millionaire coming in might look for 8-10% annual returns. The Sharks’ lease is on the second of three five-year options, the last of which ends in a decade.

It’s that return-poor situation that probably doomed Greg Jamison, the former Sharks CEO who missed today’s deadline to assemble a group to save the Coyotes in Phoenix. That’s despite Glendale, AZ promising an eight-figure subsidy for each of the next 20 years to offset the team’s operating losses. Now that a new City Council has promised to not give away the farm for another Coyotes ownership group, speculation is rampant that the team will once again relocate. Prime candidates include the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ontario, where the City Council approved an arena last night. The favorite may well be Seattle, where an arena deal is in place and an ownership group has deep pockets, especially in the form of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

If you want to be taken seriously in the business, it’s best to have at least one multi-billionaire on your team to cover the occasional lean times and cash calls. Especially in hockey.