The San Francisco Bulls won 4-2 yesterday in Stockton, ending a weekend binge for Bay Area pro hockey fans. It was the third game in three days, the second victory in a row for the first year San Francisco team. Stockton lost two of the three, but it was arguably a victory for both franchises. In an age where sports fans can go online to watch games played anywhere in the world at all hours of the day, a surprising number of fans showed up to watch local teams play a live hockey game.
Last weekend’s trio of games was more significant than a chance to cement a Bay Area rivalry. Last weekend the NHL came back from the lockout. Every single NHL team played. Saturday and Sunday, noon to night, NHL games could be seen on tv from all over the US and Canada. Would the minor league fans stay home to watch? It doesn’t look like they did, despite record viewing numbers posted by NBC for NHL games.
Friday’s and Saturday’s games were held in Stockton, the Saturday game in San Francisco. The arenas couldn’t be less alike. Stockton’s arena was built near the heart of the city in 2005, the same year the team came into being, The Cow Palace is one of the oldest venues still operating in the Bay Area, located outside the San Francisco city limits, the quintessential “old barn.” This weekend they had hockey in common.
The teams are part of the ECHL, once known as the “East Coast Hockey League.” It is the only professional minor hockey league in the US with teams on both coasts. For obvious reasons, it’s simply called “ECHL” now. The league is 25 years old, began with 5 teams and now has 23 in 16 states. This season, league average attendance stands at 4,498, ranging from 7,402 to 2,423. Stockton’s average is 5,090 and San Francisco’s 4,681. On Saturday, the Cow Palace had sold 5,618 tickets for the game, Stockton sold 5,617 for Friday’s game and 5,838 for Sunday’s.
The Stockton Thunder’s average attendance last season was 5,916, third in the league behind Ontario and Toledo. The season before, they averaged 6,382, putting them second in attendance. In 2009-10, they averaged 6,031, less than 500 behind league leader Ontario.
San Francisco’s average attendance sits solidly in the middle of the pack. As with any new venture, the first year is a suspenseful one. There hadn’t been professional hockey at the Cow Palace for 16 years when the puck dropped for the first Bulls game in October. Whether or not San Franciscans would embrace minor league hockey was uncertain to say the least.
The Bulls have run a remarkable promotion campaign, starting last Spring. From billboards to tv ads, radio spots to social media and web campaigns, the Bulls stampeded onto the Bay Area sports scene. Their video work is stellar, better than many NHL teams have put together. Fan events are popular. One fan reported that she stood in line for an hour at a mall for a player photo and autograph. And she arrived early. Merchandise sales have been outstanding, despite the fact that the team has lost more games than they won. They reached the league season average in their first two home games.
Another writer asked me a couple of days ago “are the Bulls going to make it?” All I can say is that I think San Francisco likes her team. Will she support it enough to make the venture a success? Can this team survive without landing at the top of the attendance charts? Would that be enough? Only the owners and their accountants know. For the moment, it looks as if the Bulls fans, with some help from a rival in Stockton, are ready to make a go of it.