City Beat

Thoughts on ice hockey in Fresno

There’s talk of pro ice hockey returning to Fresno’s Selland Arena.

There’s also talk that, should a formal proposal come City Hall’s way, the past should play no role in a decision.

I disagree.

I present 30 Fresno Bee stories on the Fresno Falcons. They were published from early 1997 through late 2008. I have condensed the stories. Some in this blog are longer than others. They average about 230 words.

Give them a read. You will get a sense of the flow of time, the pressure of events, the recurrence of themes.

At the end, I add 10 thoughts. Each is one brief paragraph.

1.) FEBRUARY 20, 1997

A group headed by developer Bud Long, who last weekend applied for an Arena Football League team, has reached agreement with Fresno Falcons owner Bruce Taylor to buy the West Coast Hockey League franchise.

Taylor, a Vancouver, British Columbia, businessman, and partner John Olver met with Long at Club One for two hours Wednesday and arrived on a handshake deal.

Sources say Long’s group will put down $50,000 and assume most or all of the Falcons’ debts this season. Olver, vice president of Taylor’s Sports R Us enterprise, estimates the team will lose about $200,000.

Taylor had until March 1 to find a buyer before the WCHL took control of the Fresno market.

Taylor, founder of the WCHL, put the team up for sale after buying an expansion team in Tacoma, Wash., for next season. He’s also trying to sell his franchises in Bakersfield and Reno.

Long said purchase of the Falcons is contingent upon obtaining a new lease at Selland Arena. The Falcons pay $3,000 per game plus security and a percentage of tickets sold.

What kind of hockey team is Long buying? Fresno’s success on ice hasn’t been matched at the box office. The team will lose close to $500,000 in its two WCHL seasons, Olver said.

The Falcons have never sold out a game and attendance is lagging. They’re averaging 3,230 through 24 games at Selland, which seats 8,726 for hockey. That number is inflated by tickets given to youth groups and to sponsors who paid the Falcons about $180,000 for advertising, sources said.

2.) JANUARY 23, 1999

Maybe people are right to say Fresno isn’t a hockey town.

How else to explain the Falcons were tied for first in the West Coast Hockey League’s Southern Division at the All-Star break, yet ranked last in attendance?

The Falcons drew a season-low 938 at Selland Arena for a 4-3 shootout victory against Phoenix on Jan. 11 that lifted them back into first place.

“Some days I feel disillusioned, some I feel enormously excited,” Falcons owner Bud Long said the next night, surveying 1,157 fans sprinkled throughout the 8,726-seat arena.

“But with crowds like these, unequivocally, we can’t make a go of it.”

Historically, weekday games never draw, and attendance usually climbs after the NFL season. But for a town this big to virtually ignore a professional first-place team?

“Maybe there aren’t that many hockey fans in this town,” Long said.

The Falcons will make their most ambitious attempt today to convert new followers. Fresno’s game against San Diego, another showdown for first place, could become the first sellout in franchise history.

By Friday night, 7,400 tickets had been sold, with the Pelco company purchasing 5,150 for its employees.

That’s inspiring news for the players, who have often voiced their frustration over the lack of support. Management also became disillusioned. Worse, there has been no buzz about the team in the community..

“I can’t explain it,” said Ernie Valdez, director of the Convention Center that includes Selland Arena.

Attendance continues a three-year downward spiral.

In all fairness, the Falcons’ first two WCHL seasons are skewed because the former ownership counted the large number of free tickets handed out.

This season, Long explains, free tickets, or comps, are “75% below what they were.”

Is that good or bad?

It has meant smaller crowds through the turnstiles. It has meant fewer people exposed to hockey and fewer entertainment dollars spent downtown.

That’s not what the city had in mind when it agreed to take $1 per ticket sold this season instead of imposing a flat fee of $2,200 per game for rent.

Rod Webster, economic development coordinator for the city manager's office, says the city has come out $8,000 in the red each game. That would project to $280,000 for the season, not counting any playoff games.

3.) JULY 28, 1999

The City Council has asked Convention Center Director Ernie Valdez to study the cost of renovating Selland.

Among Selland’s problems: Bad acoustics, bad dressing rooms, outdated concession stands, lousy bathrooms, no video-replay screen.

A two-year-old study said increased revenue from the remodeling probably wouldn’t offset the costs.

Council Member Tom Boyajian said the city should seek corporate sponsorship of Selland, as Fresno State has done with the Save Mart Center (due to open in about three years).

Fresno Falcons owner Bud Long said that Selland had sufficient seating.

“What we need is luxury suites and club seats,” Long said. “We need a building that fans can get excited about.”

4.) JUNE 13, 2000

The Falcons’ new owner and city officials are close to a Selland lease deal that would keep ice hockey in town.

The Falcons the previous year had threatened to suspend operations for the coming season and move to another city for the 2001-02 campaign.

“I can’t speak for the other side, but I think we are close,” Falcons owner Charles Davenport of San Diego.

The Falcons-City Hall trouble began during the previous season. The West Coast Hockey League seized control of the troubled franchise from former owner Bud Long.

The proposed lease calls for the Falcons to pay $130,000 in base rent next season. The team has an option to renew the lease in 2001 and 2002 with rents of $150,000 and $170,000.

Also to be resolved is the team’s home schedule. The Falcons are seeking 26 Friday and Saturday dates during the regular season and want to lock in weekend dates for potential playoff games in April. The regular-season home schedule is made up of 36 games.

Last season, when the league took over the franchise, the league canceled two of the Falcons’ home games because it was unable to get timely City Council approval for an extension of Long’s lease. The Falcons also had to play all of their playoff games on the road because Selland wasn’t available.

Mayor Jim Patterson recently said he wanted the city to give big-name concerts priority over the Falcons. Patterson cited an analysis by Valdez that showed the city lost $83,334 on its contract last season when the Falcons averaged about 2,000 fans a game.

Convention Center Director Ernie Valdez said he had to turn down revenue-producing concerts featuring ‘N Sync, Shania Twain, Cher, Alan Jackson, Korn, Def Leppard and ZZ Top.

5.) MARCH 19, 2002

The Falcons say they’ll moved to from Selland Arena to Fresno State’s $113 million Save Mart Arena in November 2003.

“We strive to bring high-quality entertainment to this community, and this center will help us continue to do that,” said team owner Charles Davenport said.

City leaders were shocked by the announcement, saying they didn’t expect the Falcons to leave Selland Arena.

“I’m disappointed that the Falcons have chosen to leave, given the generous support the city has provided to them for so long,” Mayor Alan Autry said.

Davenport said the move is based on the Falcons’ evolution, which started after he purchased the team in March 2000 and worked to reshape its image into a family-oriented franchise.

Attendance surged along the way — increasing from an average of 3,684 fans five years ago to nearly 6,000 today, officials said.

Davenport said initial talks with Fresno State leaders began in summer 2000, but only recently started to gel after the city didn't show “an eagerness” in extending the Selland Arena lease.

Fresno Convention Center director Ernie Valdez said the impact of losing the Falcons is minimal and the early announcement “will give us ample time to book amateur athletic events and acquire new sporting franchises” for Selland.

Added Autry: “This downtown is much bigger than the Fresno Falcons.”

6.) MARCH 21, 2002

Fresno Frenzy general manager Bob Martin says the arenafootball2 expansion team has no intention of bolting Selland Arena and following the Fresno Falcons to the $113 million Save Mart Center.

“When you crunch out the numbers, it makes sense for us to stay downtown,” Martin said.

The Frenzy, which opens its inaugural season March 30 in Hawaii, signed a two-year contract with three one-year options to play at Selland. The club will pay a base rent of $48,000 for eight games this season.

“For us, it makes sense to stay at Selland,” Martin said. “It should be fairly easy to turn a profit if we do our job well.”

7.) MARCH 22, 2002

Fresno Falcons are joining a legion of West Coast Hockey League teams that will play in state-of-the-art arenas during the 2003-04 season.

Fresno’s hockey team will become the fifth WCHL team to land a deal at an arena built within the past five years.

Falcons President John Tull estimates a 10%-20% increase in operating costs, but said that could be countered by increased attendance and corporate sponsor revenues, and by sharing concession revenues estimated at $100,000 a season.

The Falcons also will house their administrative and coaches’ offices at Save Mart Center. And Tull said the club is negotiating for a skybox, or suite, to use as another potential money-maker.

The Falcons paid base rent of $150,000 for hockey at Selland Arena this season. The figure will climb to $170,000 next season. Since Charles Davenport purchased the team two seasons ago, the Falcons have set franchise attendance records each season and currently rank second in the league.

“Why wouldn’t we want to go to the Save Mart Center?” Davenport said. “It’s a state-of-the-art facility with more amenities for the fans. I really don’t see a downside to it.”

Tull said the Falcons are on track to break even financially next season.

“That was our mission,” he said. “This year we’ll cut our deficit in half. Next year, we’ll reach our goal, then it’s on to the new arena and bigger things.”

The WCHL could lose its second team in as many years if the Tacoma Sabercats aren’t able to renew their city-owned Tacoma Dome lease.

Financially troubled Phoenix folded after last season, leaving the league with eight teams. Tacoma is threatening to suspend operations if a more favorable lease agreement isn't reached.

8.) MARCH 27, 2002

The loyalty of Fresno Falcons fans never was more apparent than last week after the club announced it will move to Fresno State’s Save Mart Center in 2003.

An overwhelming number of fans, on the team’s Web site forum board and at last weekend’s games spoke in favor of management’s decision to bolt Selland Arena for a state-of-the-art facility with about 4,000 more seats.

The few against the move cited the fear of rising ticket prices and bailing out on the city’s downtown revitalization program as their arguments to keep the team at Selland.

“Any fan would want to go to a modern arena. The city screwed up by letting them go,” said Selma’s Keith Sutherlin, who has followed the team for 10 years.

Dan Aguayo of Fresno agreed: “Something new and bigger is always better. The Grizzlies got a new stadium. Why not the Falcons?”

Robert Toman of Fresno, who has been attending games at Selland for 11 years, said he can’t wait to leave it behind.

“As fans, we’ve been insignificant to the arena people,” he said. “The box office is awful, half the concession stands aren’t open and the place just isn’t customer oriented.”

The club’s new single-season attendance mark of 191,158 surpassed last season's count by 326. The Falcons have four home games left in the regular season.

9.) DECEMBER 28, 2002

Fresno Falcons President John Tull was fired Friday by team owner Charles Davenport in a midseason move that surprised many throughout the organization.

Tull was highly visible to fans as the high-speed cheerleader of sorts who roved Selland Arena with a microphone, urging fans to “Chuck a Puck,” dance to the Village People’s “YMCA” and sing “Happy Birthday” at ice hockey games since his arrival before the 2000-01 season.

Behind the scenes, Tull has been credited with reviving a Falcons organization on its deathbed by pushing record attendance levels over 200,000 the past two seasons, including last season’s Taylor Cup championship campaign.

“I think there was a philosophical difference as far as how the team should be operated,” Tull said.

Davenport cited a need for change as the Falcons prepare for two major moves: relocating to the Save Mart Center next season and the West Coast Hockey League’s merging with the higher-profile East Coast Hockey League.

Davenport said he has several national candidates in mind to replace Tull.

“The direction we’re headed, the stakes are a lot higher, and we need to perform at a level like this organization never has before,” Davenport said.

Tull, a 15-year veteran of minor-league hockey and baseball, arrived from Cincinnati to a Falcons team that ranked last in WCHL attendance at 2,000, had no Selland Arena lease and had just two front-office employees.

Tull increased front-office efficiency and saw attendance jump to an average of 5,200 as Fresno went a franchise-best 40-20-6 in the biggest turnaround in WCHL history.

Last season, Fresno ranked second in attendance at 5,957 per game and won its first Taylor Cup title. The Falcons have struggled on the ice this season, going 11-11-3 for fifth in the league following Friday’s 5-4 shootout victory over Bakersfield. Still, Fresno is third in the league in attendance at 5,202 per game through 13 home dates.

10.) JANUARY 17, 2003

The message Fresno Falcons owner Charles Davenport delivered Thursday was clear. It’s time to meet the challenges of major changes next season.

That was Davenport’s principle theme when he introduced new senior vice president Greg Schuh to the media at the Radisson Hotel.

Schuh replaces John Tull, the club’s president who was fired Dec. 27.

“We’re not in a start-up phase anymore, and sometimes that dictates change,” said Davenport, chairman of Chandar Sports.

The Falcons will leave Selland Arena for the Save Mart Center next season and also join West Coast Hockey League teams in a move into the East Coast Hockey League.

Davenport and Schuh will look for ways to increase the fan base. Although the Falcons set franchise attendance records the past two seasons under Tull’s watch, the Save Mart Center will seat 13,876 for hockey, almost 5,000 more than Selland Arena.

11.) MARCH 27, 2003

The Fresno Frenzy, or some facsimile of the arenafootball2 team, might be revived for the 2004 season.

Bob Martin, former general manager of the Frenzy, is heading one of two groups interested in bringing the indoor game back to Fresno.

“I’ve been meeting regularly with potential investors since the team shut down,” Martin said. “I think we have the right people in place, in terms of minority interests: a group that can go out and raise sponsorship dollars. What we need is a majority owner.”

The af2 opens this season with 27 teams, down seven from last year. Franchises cost about $500,000, Martin said, with a start-up year budget of around $1.2 million.

Mike Sweeney, interim director of the Fresno Convention Center, said he has received calls from interested groups. Sweeney is in charge of Selland Arena, where the Frenzy played its eight home games in 2002.

The Frenzy, which went 4-12, lasted one season in the pass-happy, 8-on-8 league. The team drew an average of around 4,000 per game.

12.) MARCH 29, 2003

An agreement that ensured the Fresno Falcons more weekend games cemented their deal to play at the new Save Mart Center next season after negotiations had stalled.

Although the contract remains unsigned and the Falcons recently held cursory conversations with Selland Arena to return there, Falcons and Save Mart Center officials said Friday they expect to finalize the deal within 30 days.

“It’s a very big relief,” Falcons senior vice president Greg Schuh said.

Next season the Falcons move to the East Coast Hockey League as well as the $100 million arena on the Fresno State campus. The contract with Save Mart Center runs for five years. The Falcons have the option of renewing it for two five-year terms.

Troubles arose, Schuh said, when trying to map out next season’s schedule. Priority on dates goes to the Fresno State men’s and women’s basketball teams, and the Falcons draw their biggest crowds on Fridays and Saturdays.

Instead of freezing the Falcons from the weekends, the Save Mart Center agreed to hold between three and five women’s basketball games in the afternoon and Falcons games at night, Schuh said.

As a contingency, Schuh said he inquired a few weeks ago about the availability of Selland.

The Falcons’ per-game rent increases from $5,000 at Selland to about $6,750 at Save Mart Center, which expects a 13,800-seat hockey capacity.

Schuh hopes to draw 8,000 fans per game next season, a heavy spike from this season’s average of around 5,200. The team will tweak its logo and colors, aim for better giveaways and target Fresno State students and north Fresnans as part of its new fan base.

Ticket prices will increase from $14 to $22 next season for box seats, except for season-ticket holders, who will pay $15. General-admission tickets will remain $8.

The proposed deal includes no out clause for sagging attendance, Schuh said. Recouping money for the rent increase, he said, will come from a percentage of concession sales — of which the Falcons received none at Selland — and more billboard sales.

13.) APRIL 18, 2003

They soon will bid adieu to the old Gal. It could be Sunday or perhaps early May if their luck holds in the Taylor Cup playoffs.

The Fresno Falcons will trade in Selland Arena, home for 34 of their 39 years of existence, and move uptown to the $100 million Save Mart Center on Fresno State’s campus next season.

This new arena will seat 13,800 for hockey and offer the Falcons 21st century accommodations. What it won’t offer is Selland Arena’s 8,751-seat intimacy — and its memories. Selland opened in 1966 and began hosting hockey a year later.

“Selland Arena was the crown jewel of rinks on the West Coast then,” said Glen Heintz, a popular Falcons winger in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “And the lounge was the hot spot. Anybody who’s anybody crammed in. It had a full bar and a great view.”

A thick cloud of smoke regularly hung over the rink. Beer flowed, and rowdy fans routinely joined the fighting.

“"One night I lined up for a faceoff and heard a noise in the stands,” former Falcon Esko Siipola said. “Four women and five guys were fighting. Women hitting men, men pushing women. The ref grabbed us by the arms and told us to start playing to distract the crowd.”

14.) MAY 4, 2003

This was not the final footnote the Fresno Falcons wanted to leave on their 34-year history at Selland Arena.

San Diego spoiled the Falcons’ last hurrah at the downtown arena Saturday night with a 4-2 victory in Game 5 of the Taylor Cup Finals before an announced crowd of 3,511 that hoped to witness a more joyous end to an era of Fresno hockey.

The Falcons will play next season, their 40th, at the Save Mart Center on Fresno State’s campus and, along with West Coast Hockey League members, fold into the East Coast Hockey League.

“The last game here, that didn’t even cross our minds,” Falcons defenseman Kirk DeWaele said. “We’re playing for a championship.”

15.) MAY 25, 2003

When Fresno Mayor Alan Autry looks at Selland Arena, Saroyan Theatre and the city’s two exhibit halls, he sees a multimillion-dollar drain on the city’s finances — money he says could be better spent creating jobs and fixing neighborhoods.

The solution, he says, is simple: Let a private business take over marketing and management of the downtown Convention Center complex.

However, Brad Castillo and some City Council colleagues say there's nothing wrong with the status quo of city employees running the buildings.

Both sides are gearing for a battle June 3, when the council will debate privatizing the Convention Center Department and cutting ties with the Fresno Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The battlefield, however, is bigger than that.

With the scheduled opening this fall of Save Mart Center on the campus of California State University, Fresno, the viability of Selland Arena and the Convention Center complex could hang in the balance. So could Fresno’s effort to breathe new life into downtown.

16.) SEPTEMBER 5, 2003

Eighteen months of negotiations finally materialized as signatures Thursday on the long-awaited lease agreement between the Fresno Falcons minor-league hockey team and the Save Mart Center.

The five-year deal includes two five-year options that could keep the Falcons in the $100 million-plus arena on the Fresno State campus until at least 2018, said Falcons senior vice president Greg Schuh.

Negotiations dragged when the Falcons changed management in January and nearly fell apart in May, Schuh said.

Discussions centered around rent, which will increase from the $5,000 per game the Falcons paid at Selland Arena to $6,900, and issues such as percentage of concessions, which Schuh declined to discuss.

“It’s a substantial increase in rent, and it does raise the number of paid bodies we need to put in the building to reach a break-even point,” Schuh said. “I was nervous. As long as the Falcons continue to pay the bills and live up to the end of our financial obligation, the Save Mart Center would love to have us as a tenant. That puts the pressure on us to continue to get the attendance.”

With a capacity of 13,900 for hockey, Schuh said drawing 6,500 paid fans will keep the Falcons in the black. The team’s goal, he said, is 8,000 per game, compared to last year’s 5,200 average.

17.) NOVEMBER 2, 2003

John Freeman plopped down in one of the most remote seats in the Save Mart Center on Saturday so he could see what the new state-of-the-art arena looked like from the nosebleed section.

“It’s just incredible,” Freeman said while sitting in Section 222, Row M, seat 26, which rests against the back wall of the arena’s top level. “It’s nice to finally be out of Selland and have our own place.”

The public got its first glimpse of the $103 million Save Mart Center during an open house Saturday that offered visitors a chance to sit in one of the arena’s plush red chairs and gaze up at the $1 million scoreboard hanging from the ceiling.

More than 15,000 people toured the center throughout the day, officials said. Most marveled at the architecture and the layout of the arena, which took nearly two years to build and is the new home of the Fresno State Bulldogs and Fresno Falcons ice hockey team.

18.) NOVEMBER 11, 2003

The month-long road trip — almost 12,000 miles from Bakersfield to Alaska to Glitter Gulch to Gulf Coast Dixieland and back to the SoCal beach — is almost over.

The Save Mart Center has been broken in by basketball and volleyball players, an opera star and a pop music icon.

Now it's prime time for the Fresno Falcons, who begin a new era in Fresno hockey Sunday.

They’re in a new league.

The ECHL doesn’t mean what you think it does. It’s just four letters, ECHL, standing for nothing but America's premier AA hockey league with 31 teams in 17 states in four time zones.

They’re in a new arena. After 35 years at downtown Selland Arena, the Falcons have moved their games — and are moving their offices — to the Save Mart Center.

19.) NOVEMBER 17, 2003

For one night, at least, the Falcons turned Fresno into a Hockeytown. The hockey was mostly crisp, sprinkled with enough scoring and hard hits and brawls to yank people from their seats. The ice looked great, the promotions were a hit, the concessions were jammed, the game went to overtime and the merchandise booths found a steady stream of fans needing $129 game jerseys, $5 pucks and anything in between, provided it had a logo.

Best of all, the Save Mart Center was practically full. The place holds about 14,000 for hockey, and 12,462 people were there. It was electric. It felt big-league.

“The key is to maintain it for 35 more dates,” said team vice president Greg Schuh, smiling but not really joking.

The Falcons have undertaken a monumental task, a classic gamble of risk vs. reward. Either way, with success or failure, the Falcons will become a case study for future sports-marketing students.

The Falcons could have stayed at Selland Arena, giving away tickets to inflate their attendance numbers, playing to a fervent but stagnant fan base, likely dying a slow and lonely death.

Instead, they moved. Save Mart Center or bust.

“Yeah, it’s a little frightening when you see this large facility and how many seats we have to fill to break even,” says Schuh, a blur of humanity buzzing around him on the concourse during the first intermission.

The Falcons say they need to average 6,500 fans — paid. It’s a daunting number. In a 31-team league with an average break-even point of 4,000 fans per game, no other franchise will average 6,500 fans a night this season.

“There are huge pockets of people who have never experienced the Falcons because of what we were or where we were,” team owner Charles Davenport said. “...We’ve found some new fans tonight, no doubt about it.”

The trick is to keep them coming back. The Falcons retained about 95% of their season-ticket holders from last year. But they haven’t found many new fans willing to sign up for the long haul. The number of season-ticket holders sits at about 2,200 — roughly the same as last year.

20.) DECEMBER 3, 2003

There is at least one place on the World Wide Web where you can find a Fresno Flames T-shirt.

The World Basketball League franchise survived only one season. Like other failed minor-league teams in Fresno and elsewhere, the Flames, circa 1988, live only in lore. And the Internet.

Fifteen years later, on Monday night, the American Basketball Association’s Fresno HeatWave played its inaugural game at Selland Arena.

There were players, coaches, officials, even cheerleaders and roaming popcorn vendors. And a few hundred fans.

This is where you come in. Or, rather — as history has demonstrated — don't come in.

Fresno, sans major-league teams, is not a major-league sports city.

But you wonder if it’s a minor-league city, either. Or if it is something altogether different.

Fresno’s past is littered with failed start-up attempts by big-dreaming, well-meaning people. This will work, they say. This is the product, the price, the market, the time.

Most end in failure, faster than you can say XFL.

Gone are the Stars of basketball, the Sun-Nets of team tennis, the Dragons of soccer, the Frenzy of arena football.

Each lasted a season — or less. Like most minor-league teams of Fresno’s past, they moved across the landscape with the permanence of weather patterns.

Even Fresno’s two high-profile survivors hardly are bastions of stability. The Falcons upgraded to a different hockey league and moved to the Save Mart Center, admittedly needing to average about 6,500 paid fans per game to make money. After attracting 12,462 fans on opening night, the Falcons averaged 4,260 the next two games. On Tuesday, the announced attendance was 2,281.

Minor leagues are the campy kitsch of sports, a heaven-sent Scrabble rack of vaguely familiar acronyms, more interesting in retrospect than they ever were in actuality.

Fresno also has proximity to the Bay Area and Los Angeles, with their 14 major-league teams. It has high unemployment and relatively low average income. It has mountain escapes and coastal diversions and, of course, lots of television sets for those who like their sports free and televised.

And it has history. When so many teams fail, it’s difficult to throw your support — and money — to the next one to come along.

21.) APRIL 2, 2004

Two games remain in a historic — and in some ways forgettable — season for the Fresno Falcons.

Two games left to gain some much-needed ticket revenue. Two games to assess the skill — and will — of the players who might return next season.

Two games, followed by the most important offseason in recent memory.

“This is the first time in 17 years I haven’t been in the playoffs,” said general manager Blaine Moore, who took the Falcons to the West Coast Hockey League finals the past two seasons.

“I don’t know what to do with myself.”

Vice president Greg Schuh finally will get to focus on marketing and ticket sales. That was a difficult chore this season, when his energies were taken by the logistics of moving into the Save Mart Center and the team's first season in the ECHL.

The biggest offseason goal is increasing season-ticket numbers by 500 to a total of 1,500 — 2,300 counting corporate and media trade-outs (tickets held by companies who do business with the Falcons).

If that happens, and the Falcons get enough Friday and Saturday night home games in 2004-05, Schuh said the team can approach its break-even attendance goal of 6,500 a game.

It’s a daunting task. No team in the ECHL attracts that many fans. The Falcons rank ninth in attendance in the 34-team league, averaging 4,661. With big turnouts tonight and Saturday, they could move up to eighth or seventh.

22.) AUGUST 16, 2007

The Fresno Falcons are headed back to Selland Arena.

Team owners and Fresno city officials made that announcement Wednesday at a news conference at the 41-year-old downtown arena.

The move into the city-owned arena beginning with the 2008-09 season is subject to approval by the Fresno City Council.

The City Council also will consider a plan to replace the ice-making equipment at Selland and a proposal that would allow Falcons owners Brian Glover and Chris Cummings to build The Legacy Downtown, a commercial development on what currently is the Selland parking lot.

That development would include an ice rink that would serve as the Falcons’ practice facility and be open for public use, apartments, shops and restaurants.

“This is a huge deal, we’re ecstatic,” said Stan Dolan, whose 6-year-old son plays junior hockey. “I have no problem coming to an ice rink downtown any time.”

Falcons fan Jason Pugh was just as excited. "I'd buy my season tickets now if they were available,” he said.

Falcons partner Chris Cummings said Selland is a better deal financially for the Falcons because the team will have fewer expenses and more revenue opportunities. He also said the deal is for 20 years.

23.) APRIL 22, 2008

Turn the key in the ignition, back the moving truck up to the back door. The Fresno Falcons can start packing up for the return to their old haunting grounds.

The Utah Grizzlies eliminated Fresno from the Kelly Cup playoffs 4-2 on Monday night at the Save Mart Center, taking the best-of-seven ECHL National Conference quarterfinal series 4-2.

So ends the Falcons’ five--year run at the arena on the campus of Fresno State. Next season, they'll be back at Selland Arena.

The city of Fresno is refurbishing Selland Arena. It’s a cozier venue, with fans closer to the ice and able to raise the noise level.

“A smaller place is more electric. Any time you get a lot of energy in a building, it excites players,” Falcons winger Brady Leisenring said.

24.) AUGUST 30, 2008

Owners of the financially troubled Fresno Falcons along with City Manager Andy Souza are discussing ways to transfer ownership of the professional hockey team to a yet-to-be-created nonprofit.

Brian Glover, a Falcons partner, and Souza say something firm could be presented to the City Council late this year or early 2009. They said the goal is to have new ownership in place for the 2009-10 season.

The Falcons’ lease at city-owned Selland Arena requires council approval for an ownership change. The team played its home games at the Save Mart Center for the past five years, but is returning to Selland for the 2008-09 season.

The beauty of nonprofit ownership, Glover said, is that Falcons fans and sponsors “aren’t putting money into someone’s pockets to make them wealthy. You’re doing something for downtown revitalization and for the charitable entities that the nonprofit supports.”

Fresno Hockey Club bought the Falcons in early 2006. Glover said the owners’ plan was always to stabilize the finances, move back to Selland and seek a nonprofit to take over ownership.

Souza said the city is investing millions of dollars in Selland renovations, including $1.5 million for a new ice floor to be used mainly by the Falcons. By transferring the Falcons to a local nonprofit, he said, “you know there’s no risk of your franchise moving.”

Glover and Chris Cummings are among the partners in the Falcons, the Fresno Grizzlies Triple-A baseball team and the Fresno Fuego soccer team. They also are trying to build The Legacy Downtown, a multiuse project that is to include apartments where players from the three teams could live.

Glover said the Falcons lost $1 million in each of their first two years under the current ownership. He estimated that savings in operating costs at Selland and opportunities to sell more sponsorships will offset the $1 million annual losses.

The second major issue is the nonprofit. It doesn't exist, Glover said, and the Falcons’ ownership isn't sure how to proceed.

25.) OCTOBER 24, 2008

Tonight’s Fresno Falcons homecoming to Selland Arena has long been anticipated as a feel-good moment — a hockey team and its fans returning to the scene of the good ol’ days.

That means a noisy crowd cheering hard checks, hard-working goals and hard-luck Bakersfield Condors fans sent home grumbling.

But in today’s economic climate, good times are tempered by hard times. The Falcons, for all their enthusiasm, are struggling financially.

Indeed, this is a time of creative penny-pinching for Fresno’s ECHL minor-league hockey franchise.

To save on rent after moving out of their offices at the Save Mart Center, the team’s staff, including CEO John Tull, is working out of their homes, at Chukchansi Park (run by Falcons management) or at a construction company owned by managing partner Arline Parfitt.

Matt Thomas, the team's general manager and coach, used his own money to pay for wooden stalls to be installed in the locker room.

There will be no radio broadcasts for many road games.

Tull said season ticket sales are up about 400 over last year, from 1,100 to 1,500.

The Falcons averaged 5,035 per game last season. As of Thursday mid-afternoon they had sold 4,800 for tonight's home opener.

The Falcons believe Selland 7,600-seat intimacy will bring more spirited crowds than the 14,000-capacity Save Mart Center, where they played the past five seasons.

The city invested heavily in the Falcons’ move downtown, spending $13 million to refurbish Selland Arena — including $1.6 million for a new ice floor and a similar amount for a new video scoreboard. It also installed new seats and and refurbished the locker rooms.

“Hockey will be here for a long time,” Hull said. “We have a 20-year lease with the city. We all expect a different ownership structure next summer, so we want to make the team as successful as possible within our monetary means.”

Under terms of the lease, if the Falcons owners cannot continue, the city would own the team.

26.) OCTOBER 25, 2008

Former Fresno Falcons gathered to share memories of battles waged and fallen comrades.

Then the current Falcons created a new entry in the memory bank — a 3-2 victory against the Bakersfield Condors in the first game back at Selland Arena in more than five years.

The game’s outcome was no more or less significant than the good vibes created by Fresno’s minor league hockey team being back where many folks believe it needed to be all along.

“This is good for Fresno,” said longtime fan Vicki Jefferies from her family’s perch in the front row above the south goal.

The Condors and Falcons have developed a rivalry the past few years and Bakersfield fans totaled about 300 of the noisy crowd, announced at 6,000.

27.) NOVEMBER 21, 2008

The Ontario Reign, the ECHL’s newest franchise, makes its first visit to Fresno today and Saturday to take on the Falcons at Selland Arena.

To the Falcons and their fans, the games are a battle for first place in the Pacific Division.

But to the ECHL it’s all about geography. The emergence of the Reign and the new Citizens Bank Arena mark the ECHL’s return to Southern California. The Long Beach Ice Dogs disbanded after the 2006-07 season, a year after the demise of the San Diego Gulls.

Selling hockey in Southern California is difficult, said Reign executive vice president Justin Kemp said.

“Sure, we’re appealing to the diehard hockey fan, but there are fewer of them,” he said. “We have to compete with movie theaters for people who want to spend $10 to $15 for a night out. We’re an affordable alternative, and if we turn them into hockey fans, that’s a goal.”

28.) DECEMBER 22, 2008

Owners of the Fresno Falcons have only 10 days to inform ECHL headquarters if they plan to suspend operations next season or sell the financially troubled pro ice hockey team.

Falcons owners have made no secret in recent months they want to unload the team, whether by selling it or transferring it to a nonprofit organization.

But the owners in early December said they still hadn’t found a buyer or a receptive nonprofit. City manager Andy Souza, who has been working with the Falcons for several months to find new ownership, said the search continues.

It's almost certain the Falcons will have new ownership in 2009-10.

Asked about the possibility of the city owning the Falcons, Souza said, “We haven’t said no.”

ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said the league board of governors will meet Jan. 21 in Reading, Pa., during the break for the all-star game. He said the league requires a team thinking about moving to a new city, suspending operations or selling the franchise before next season to inform the commissioner’s office by the end of December.

The average home attendance as of Dec. 15 was 3,435, down more than 30% from last season.

Stockton at 7,048 and Bakersfield at 6,338 rank 1-2 in the ECHL in average attendance.

29.) DECEMBER 23, 2008

Four decades of Fresno Falcons ice hockey came to an end Monday when the financially struggling club abruptly went out of business.

The Falcons’ owners, Fresno Hockey Club LLC, said overwhelming financial losses due to declining attendance and dwindling corporate sponsorships forced them to suddenly shut down a team with a long local history.

“The combination of the two has put us in a position where we can’t go forward,” said managing general partner Chris Cummings. “Our revenue is just not there.”

Falcons partner Brian Glover said the team lost more than $4 million since Fresno Hockey Club bought it nearly three years ago.

Fresno City Manager Andy Souza said the city could have taken over operation of the team. He said officials in the ECHL, the Falcons’ league, raised this possibility in an e-mail Monday.

But Souza said he declined the offer because it would risk taxpayers’ money.

30.) DECEMBER 24, 2008

Fresno City Hall is working aggressively to recoup millions of dollars from the now-defunct Fresno Falcons ice hockey team.

City attorney James Sanchez on Tuesday said the Falcons owners breached their contract to play home games at the city-owned Selland Arena through the 2027-28 season, depriving Fresno of an estimated $3.5 million in rent payments.

“From our standpoint, there’s a breach here, a material breach of our agreements,” Sanchez said.

In November 2007, the team and the city signed a 20-year lease bringing the Falcons back to Selland. The city, trying to expand downtown's after-hours array of entertainment, spent an estimated $5 million on arena improvements designed largely for the Falcons. These included a new $1.6 million ice floor.

The rent was $180,000 a year. The Falcons had played only 16 of 36 scheduled home games when the team folded.

The Selland improvements were funded with bonds, and city officials were counting on the Falcons' rent to help make the annual bond payments.

“We are losing the benefit of $180,000 in revenue for the next 20 years,” Sanchez said.

On Tuesday, Mayor Alan Autry said he made the decision to reject the takeover offer. He said he supports the Falcons, but ensuring the funding of basic city services is more important in these tough economic times than a minor-league ice hockey operation.

Autry is termed out Jan. 6, and the decision on what to do about the Falcons will belong to new Mayor Ashley Swearengin.


My 10 thoughts:

1.) Lots of lucrative corporate sponsorships are unlikely.

2.) The four-county central San Joaquin Valley doesn’t have a big middle-class with discretionary income to spend on niche sports entertainment.

3.) The investor group looking to bring ice hockey back to Selland says City Hall will get to keep the $1 arts/parks fee on each ticket. This fee is levied by city code. The money by law must go to City Hall.

4.) ECHL teams seem to come and go like June bugs.

5.) Falcons attendance numbers were juiced with free tickets.

6.) Falcons crowds seldom stuck around after the game to spend money in downtown restaurants and nightclubs.

8.) Many Falcons fans liked ice hockey’s violence more than ice hockey itself.

9.) The investor group looking to bring ice hockey back to Selland wants City Hall to give it $3 for each fan going through the gates. The money would qualify as a general fund subsidy. That means a three-year deal at Selland would almost certainly trigger Council Member Lee Brand’s Better Business Act.

9.) If City Hall has general fund money to give to an ice hockey franchise, then city officials don't need contract concessions from FPOA President Jacky Parks and his members.

10.) Pro ice hockey failed in Fresno because people made the personal decision to stop spending their money on the product. Nothing so far suggests this has changed.