The business of minor league sports is always a difficult one. It’s completely gate-driven, and if the butts in the seats aren’t there, you won’t make money. A good arena lease is pretty instrumental to the success of a team, but if you don’t have the fans at the arena, you won’t be able to pay for the arena, no matter how sweet the lease is.
Look at the Wikipedia pages of just about any minor league and you will see the bodies of old franchises strewn everywhere. What you don’t often see is a team fold in the middle of the season. It throws things into utter chaos for the league, and teams usually have their finances together enough to survive their final season.
So it was a little surprising to hear that the San Francisco Bulls have thrown in the towel and shut down mid-season. From their website:
“We had a great opportunity come to us that would’ve kept the Bulls in San Francisco at least through the end of the 2014 season, with potential for future seasons, but we ran out of time to complete all ends of the deal,” said Curcio. “At this point, the best thing to do financially is to reluctantly end the season. We will miss playing here, miss our fans, and miss this city.”
The Bulls also say they are taking requests for refunds on remaining tickets. Requests? Let’s call those demands instead. No one is going to call the office and say, “I want my money back.” They will call to say ,”Give me my money back.”
The ECHL is going to have to scramble to reschedule the Western Conference. The next game the Bulls were supposed to play was a home game on Thursday, January 30th. That’s only three days after shutting down. With a conference hosting a few teams that have to fly to destinations (Colorado and Alaska), it’s not as easy as it sounds, and there will probably be some money lost by the other franchises in the process.
There have been other teams to fold mid-season. It’s not a unique situation, even if it’s a little odd. The ECHL lost the Fresno Falcons a few years ago, the IHL lost the Milwaukee Flacons and saw the Denver Mavericks relocate to Minnesota, the Central Hockey League watched the Border City Bandits fold, the SPHL shut down the Florida Seals, the United Hockey League gave up the Columbus Stars and the Mohawk Valley Prowlers. And you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a mid-season shutdown in the Federal Hockey League. It almost looks like a right of passage there.
So fine, it happens. But what about the rest of the landscape? What are the chances another team will go down before the season ends?
From pure attendance numbers, the Bulls aren’t the least troublesome franchise out there. In the ECHL, they were second worst in attendance, with the Wheeling Nailers beating them out. The Nailers have been around a lot longer than the Bulls, and have had half houses as far back as the ECHL website would go. So they are no stranger to that issue, and seem to do just fine.
In the Central Hockey League, the lowest attended team is the Denver Cutthroats. They are almost seven hundred down from the next lowest attendance, and 2,200 off the league average. The CHL has seen a big change in the last several years as their base of Texas teams went the route of the cheaper American Junior hockey leagues, and league ownership shifted to some of the franchise owners. Will the Cutthroats weather the storm? I think so, but after this season, it’s a hard question to answer.
The American Hockey League is pretty stable. I can’t see anyone shutting down mid-season. With their close ties to the NHL, it’s hard to imagine a franchise being allowed to shut down. Even the least financially viable, the Abbotsford Heat, seem to be in decent shape. I expect a few teams to relocate this summer, but nothing mid-season.
The SPHL seems pretty stable right now. The SPHL draws almost 500 less fans on average per game than the Central, but they are set up financially for that kind of attendance. At the same time, four CHL teams are below the SPHL’s league attendance.
As for the Federal Hockey League, they can’t afford to lose a team. They only have four right now. I suspect that if any team shut down, the fans of the Danbury Whale would just beat them up. Don’t believe me? Read this history of the the old Danbury Trashers (which I had the ‘privilege’ to see live once).
So it’s a pretty unlikely scenario, but there are still a few teams in trouble out there. Whether or not they shut down mid-season is anyone’s guess, but it could come down to deep enough pockets and enough backbone to sustain losses as they mount. And with some of those numbers, they will mount.