For a casual hockey observer, this seems out of the blue: Mark Purdy is reporting tonight that the San Jose Sharks will move its top affiliate, the Worcester Sharks (MA), to San Jose starting with next season. The Worcester Sharks are in the American Hockey League, the hockey equivalent of AAA baseball. TSN hockey reporter Darren Dreger reported last month that the move is part of a five-team shift to establish a true division of West Coast teams. The AHL had operated strictly under a Western/Eastern conference alignment this year, when divisions were introduced.
The problem with the new alignment is that even in the Western Conference, the team furthest west was in San Antonio, with no teams in the Mountain or Pacific time zones. By re-establishing five existing teams on the West Coast, those teams will be able to support each other with less travel distance between them. In conjunction with the new two-headed Sharks in San Jose, Calgary will move its AHL affiliate to Stockton, displacing the ECHL Thunder. According to Dreger, the other teams expected to jump on the bandwagon are the Kings, Ducks, and Oilers. Strangely, that leaves the Canucks without a West Coast AHL mate, their current AHL city being Utica (!), NY, pending a future move or new affiliation. The Pacific Northwest is already well represented in terms of minor league hockey thanks to several junior teams (WHL) in place for years or even decades.
So far the Sharks are the only franchise to agree to house its minor league and big clubs under the same roof. Purdy thinks it’ll be a short-term move, the to-be-renamed minor league team farmed out to Oakland after the Warriors leave, Sacramento when the new arena is completed, or elsewhere in a few years. Next fall will be an interesting experiment in observing how much hockey San Jose and the Bay Area can tolerate. The Bulls and Spiders both failed at the Cow Palace, but that was largely due to the Cow Palace’s age and location. There is a real risk of oversaturation, especially if the Sharks don’t improve from their uninspiring (but playoff-bound) state. The counter to that argument is that the real hardcore Sharks fans will have an opportunity to really indulge their ice jones, by being able to watch the big show and players on the cusp of the NHL. The AHL has a 76-game schedule, so if you halve that you get a total of 79 regular season home games between the Sharks and mini-Sharks, plus preseason and potential playoff games. That’s almost as many as a baseball home schedule.
View from my upper level 10-game SharkPak seats during the 2013-14 season
Pricing is the perhaps most curious conundrum. The Sharks want to price AHL games affordably, to attract families and casual fans, yet they don’t want to undercut their premium NHL product too much. Currently, season tickets for the Worcester Sharks at 80’s vintage DCU Center run from $12 to $20 per game depending on the package, an absolute bargain compared to the Sharks or any other NHL team for that matter. They have a number of all-season promotions, including $79 family four-packs including concessions and $2 popcorn, hot dogs, and sodas on Fridays. A family four-pack in San Jose costs $120-360 depending on where you sit.
Naturally, operating costs at SAP Center are going to be a little higher than in Worcester, so we may not see prices quite so low for AHL games. The organization can choose to run a smaller operation by curtaining off the upper level, limiting the capacity to around 10,000 seats. I figure if they can pull in 5,000 a game, they should be able to break even if most tickets are around half the price of their counterparts at a NHL Sharks game. Many of the concerts, ice shows, and other paid events the AHL games would displace are meant for crowds of 10,000 or less, with numerous sections “backstage.” Unless mini-Sharks attendance is extremely poor, the organization shouldn’t lose money.
I overlaid the Worcester Sharks home schedule on top of the SAP Center’s event schedule and found 19 date conflicts. A handful involved touring shows like Disney on Ice or Marvel Universe, dates for which games could be easily rescheduled. Only 7 were SJ Sharks home games. Again, most of those could be rescheduled by either swapping dates with the visiting team or changing dates. For some weekend games day-night doubleheader situations might be appropriate. It would allow the arena to stay in rink configuration for two events over a full day. Downtown San Jose businesses would love that. Worcester and other AHL teams also have the unusual practice of scheduling the same opponent for back-to-back home games on consecutive nights. That may not be doable given the number of events at SAP Center.
Purdy alluded to new dressing rooms being built at the arena. I figure that the cluster of smaller auxiliary dressing rooms will be modified for that purpose. Another dressing room would have to be built at Sharks Ice as well. A very fan-friendly move would be if the mini-Sharks offered more open practice sessions.
Finally, the team name will not be San Jose Sharks, or Sharks 2.0. I wouldn’t be surprised if the team dumped the Sharks moniker for the team and even went with the “Silicon Valley” locator. The name would resonate with sponsors, most of whom are Valley tech companies who already have their names on the ice and boards. Maybe it’ll be something that Purdy himself has used frequently, the Tiburones. Silicon Valley Tiburones. There are no sharks in a valley, you’ll say. Hey, I’m no marketing genius and it’s only a minor league team. They can afford to experiment.
P.S. – Names I would not like: San Jose Chips, Silicon Valley Brogrammers, San Jose Apps.