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 These seats have been replaced by a beer garden.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.


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.


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.

8 thoughts on “SF Bulls minor league hockey team could fold, move to Oakland or Fresno

  1. Beat me to it ML, I was just about to post a link about this. Sad to see happen, but not surprising. SF hasn’t been a good location for minor league sports since the Seals closed up shop back in the 50’s. It’s too much of a top level front runner city to care about a minor league outfit like the Bulls. Particularly one that plays in a run down, harder to access venue like the Cow Palace. I mean the list of defunct minor league teams from SF is long and undistinguished. But people keep lining up to be the next failure. The North American Soccer League is looking at SF for their next expansion and want to put them at Kezar Stadium where another similar level soccer team, the California Victory, failed 8 years ago after one season.

  2. Unfortunate but not a surprise. The San Francisco Spiders, who played in a higher level minor league than the ECHL Bulls, also quickly failed. Hopefully, the Bulls can catch on someplace else locally. They are a Sharks affiliate – if the Sharks need a goaltender and don’t have time to fly one in from Worcester, Mass., they’ll suit up the Bulls goalie as a Sharks

  3. I wouldn’t worry about the Sharks. They can always re-affiliate with the Stockton Thunder like they had been previously. I’m sure the Thunder would welcome the affiliation back as well seeing as their own attendance has dropped in the last two seasons since they lost the Sharks affiliation.

    It is a shame that it didn’t work out for the Bulls, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Cow Palace shouldn’t even still be standing let alone hosting pro sports. I went to a pair of Bulls games last year and it wasn’t all that great of an experience. It’s dark, dank, dreary and in a neighborhood that makes the Coliseum seem like its in Mister Rodgers Neighborhood. I mean there were two guys slinging crack on the corner across from the Cow Palace driveway when I went to my first game and a hooker got out of a car a half block away on my second trip (a night game). Add in SF’s usual disdain for anything minor league and you have your answer as to why the Bulls failed.

  4. SF is a sports city??? Isn’t that why the gints are trying to protect SCCo because they realize that most of the people who live in the city by the bay could care less about professsional sports whether major or minor league.

  5. Is the Cow Palace in SF proper or Daly City? Not that it really matters re this story.

  6. How about the shuttered Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center? Near BART… On the lake… Downtown adjacent…. Just needs life safety upgrades….

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