NewsOK reported today that Edmonton Oilers executives met with officials in Oklahoma City last weekend regarding the possibility of installing their AHL farm team in the city.
There are a number of reasons that Oklahoma City would be a more tempting location than Springfield, Massachusetts. The first is distance –- Oklahoma City is nearly 1,000 kilometers closer to Edmonton than Springfield. Oklahoma City is also 1,500 kilometers closer to the Oilers ECHL affiliate in Stockton than Springfield is.
Another reason is the available arenas. Ford Center, the current home of the NBA’s Thunder, and the Central Hockey League’s Blazers, can hold over 18,000 fans, and was built in 2002. The Blazers practice in the Blazers Ice Center, which doubles as the home of the University of Oklahoma men’s hockey team. In contrast, the MassMutual Center in Springfield has a peak capacity under 7,000 and was originally built in 1972. The question, of course, is whether an AHL team could draw more than the 6,500 or so fans that MassMutual Center can hold, a question which brings us to the third advantage of Oklahoma City over Springfield: attendance.
Falcons in Trouble
The Falcons have been a poor franchise for a decade now (the last time the team managed a .500 record was in 1997-98), and the uninspiring finish last season (fifth in their division) was actually the best the team had done in the last five seasons. It is perhaps unsurprising that attendance has suffered as a result. At the end of January last year, Falcons president Bruce Landon pleaded publicly for ticket renewal; the goal of 500 new season ticket packages was set. At the time, Landon made it clear what the alternative was:
“For the past six years, our fan base has been declining steadily. As a result, our financial losses continue to grow. If we are unable to reach our goal, there would be no way to lessen our continuing losses, and the operation would become financially unsustainable.”
Springfield through through games this year has an average attendance of just over 4,000 fans. That’s up from the 3,481 they averaged in 2007-08, a mark that was the second-worst in the league. Although there has been improvement, there is good reason to believe that a team in Oklahoma City would draw considerably better attendance.
The Oklahoma City Blazers currently lead the Central Hockey League in attendance –- and their average of 6,227 would put them sixth in the AHL. It isn’t far-fetched to think that the superior level of hockey played by an AHL team could draw even larger crowds.
The Oilers current partnership with the Falcons expires next year –- and the team’s economic struggles combined with the Oilers ownership of a dormant AHL franchise may mean that Oilers prospects are playing in Oklahoma City in the near future.