The Alaska Aces took to the ice on April 8th against the Idaho Steelheads in the second-to-last game of the season. The game meant something; they needed to win to stay alive in the race for a playoff berth in the 2017 Kelly Cup Playoffs. There was a high number of fans in attendance at Sullivan Arena for an Aces game, with 6,251 fans exactly. That was over 2,000 more than the previous Friday home game in Anchorage.
It was also a special occasion. Or, depending on how you view it, a very somber occasion. It was the second-to-last regular season game in the history of the Alaska Aces.
The Aces, citing money, attendance, and Alaska economic reasons, were set to fold at the end of the season. According to an interview with Terry Parks, a member of the five-man ownership group of the team, conducted by Alaska Dispatch News, the team lost around $1 million in the 2015-16 season and expected to lose around the same amount this year.
Alaska’s economy has been trending downwards due to oil prices lowering. Oil is by far the biggest money provider for the Alaskan government. However, with the downward trend, it’s becoming difficult for business owners to be successful.
The fanbase in Alaska has also been dwindling in recent years from an already small number. It dropped to an average of 3,623 in the last season of the franchise, a huge difference from their 4,619 average fanbase in 2013-14, the year they won the Kelly Cup.
How can a team that just 3 years ago won the Kelly Cup be no more? It’s a sad state of affairs for Aces-diehards who did follow their team. They were the only professional hockey team in a state without a top-level professional sports team. The team website – which is still indexed on Google – is a link to nothing but an error page. Not even 2 weeks since their last game and the site is gone.
In the game against Idaho, they lost. Their chance at the playoffs was dashed. Their final game was confirmed to be the next night at home. No big postseason celebration was to be held. It was a collapse as well; they were 2-7-1 in their last 10 games of the season, good for the 2nd worst record in the league over that stretch.
The Aces weren’t the only team to fold at the end of the 2016-17 season; the Elmira Jackals folded after an absolutely abysmal year in which they finished with 42 points, 7 points less than the 2nd-worst team.
What does this mean for teams that perform poorly in a season? Obviously, the Jackals were the poorly performing team as compared to the Aces, but the decision to fold was made long before Alaska went on a 2-7-1 run to end the year. The reason that Elmira folded was also due in part to their arena, First Arena, being sold.
In Alaska’s case, failure was not something they were used to. As previously mentioned, they won the Kelly Cup just 3 years ago! It’s very difficult to imagine a team winning the championship and then folding just a few years later. And the economy is most likely the biggest culprit.
Losing a thousand fans over the course of 3 years may not sound huge in the NHL, but it is a gigantic amount in the ECHL. This is a league that, over the course of this season, only had one team break the 90% barrier for filling up their arena: the Toldeo Walleye, the best team in the league.
The ECHL is a very interesting league for fans. Although all teams have NHL affiliations (save for the Fort Wayne Komets), the teams are more or less represented by their city. Fans who live in, say, Reading and have season tickets for the Royals will identify more as a Royals fan than a Flyers fan. That’s how the ECHL survives: on fans who love their hometown teams. The AHL is a bit different; even though many teams have huge hometown followings, they have a lot of fans who go to games because it’s their NHL team’s farm system. The ECHL is not big enough or well-known enough to survive on that type of fan. That’s just the state of minor league sports in the United States and Canada.
For the ECHL to thrive, they need that hometown support. With a falling economy, the Aces were not going to get the number of fans that they needed to survive. That reported loss – $1 million – is also huge in ECHL numbers.
What can the ECHL do about this issue? I don’t think they can do anything except choose franchise locations wisely. It wasn’t like Alaska was a bad choice though; from their first year in the ECHL in 03-04, they won 3 Kelly Cups behind a great fanbase.
They were a team coming from the disbanded WCHL without much success only to become very successful in the 3rd division of professional hockey. Their worst year for the longest time in terms of attendance numbers was their inaugural year in the ECHL with an average of 4,340 fans per game. Then, in 2015-16, they fell below 4,000 fans, losing 500 per game from the year previously.
The ECHL can be a victim of its own successes at times. It is a major success story when a minor league team wins their small hometown over with championships and a close following, but relying on this for too long can be detrimental to the team’s future. That same small hometown fanbase may have a few hundred people who go through economic hardships making it difficult and irresponsible to purchase tickets to a hockey team’s games. And the margin between success and failure in the ECHL is very small as well.
It’s a sad day whenever a minor league team folds due to any reason, and an even sadder one when they become a victim of their own success.
Dylan Coyle is a writer and the founder of Good Night, Good Hockey. He is also a Philadelphia Flyers, HersheyBears, and Reading Royals reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanRCoyle_BSH.