Can the Wild survive?
AHL hockey has failed before in Des Moines; proponents say this time will be different
Friday, June 14, 2013 7:00 AM
Todd Frederickson, Iowa Wild President
Hometown: Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he also played hockey.
Previous experience: Frederickson served as vice president of team business services for the American Hockey League (AHL) from 2008 until taking the position with the Wild. He also spent 10 years in the ticketing department of the Chicago Wolves AHL team, including three years as its executive director of ticket sales and service. The Wolves typically draw between 7,000 and 8,000 fans per game, despite being in the same market as the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League (NHL). The team led the league in attendance in 2004-05, drawing 9,209 fans per game.
Why is Des Moines a good fit for the Wild?
Des Moines is a good fit for the Wild first and foremost because the Minnesota Wild are located 3 ½ hours up the road in St. Paul. There’s a natural connection, geographic connection, between the two markets. So the ability for the Minnesota Wild to expand their footprint into Des Moines makes natural sense. A lot of NHL and AHL teams have realized that there’s definitely some cost savings by having the ability for their players to be closer. That being said, there’s also some advantages from the hockey standpoint, so having the ability to call up players, and within the same day they can be up at the parent club. So that allows a little bit more flexibility with player travel.
What does success look like for the Iowa Wild?
It’s being appropriately priced. It’s having a good product, or a good atmosphere, in the arena. And it’s about growing our fan base.
How will your past help you in this job?
I’ve got the institutional knowledge of the American Hockey League. Growing up in my career, working for the Wolves or the AHL, I’m able to touch so many different parts of the business that I may not be able to touch at the major league level. When I was doing ticket sales in Chicago, I was also doing merchandising, game operations and corporate sales. So I was able to learn the whole business. I think it can’t be said enough that we’re also bringing in as talented of employees as we think we can be bringing in to this.
Todd Frederickson hears the skepticism.
The new president of the Iowa Wild American Hockey League (AHL) team that’s set to drop the puck at Wells Fargo Arena this fall is acutely aware of the teams that folded here recently.
“I’ve had very important people in the business community come right out and say, basically, ‘Prove to me that it’s going to work this time,’” said Frederickson, who has made a point to meet with as many people as he can in his first month or so on the job. “I appreciate their honesty. I really do. It gives us an opportunity to kind of communicate why I think we are going to be successful.”
As a member of the AHL’s front office prior to taking the job with the Wild, Frederickson watched the Iowa Chops leave Des Moines in 2009. He wouldn’t say anything negative about the Iowa Stars/Chops franchise, but he will point out all the reasons he thinks AHL hockey will be successful this time around.
Why is this time different?
Chris Connolly, general manager of the Global Spectrum-managed Iowa Events Center, understands the skepticism. His plea: “Give this a chance,” he said. “This is a completely different situation, with a professional organization.”
He is not alone in that opinion. Iowa Cubs President and General Manager Sam Bernabe expressed confidence in the Wild’s prospects, as did Dawn Pentico, general manager of business operations for the Des Moines Buccaneers hockey team. The big difference this time, said Connolly, is the ownership.
The Iowa Wild are owned by their National Hockey League (NHL) affiliate, the Minnesota Wild, an organization described with phrases such as “first-class” and “well-run” by those in the Central Iowa sports scene.
The Des Moines market was attractive for Minnesota owner Craig Leipold largely because Des Moines is close to the organization’s NHL home of St. Paul. That’s good from a player development standpoint.
The primary goal of the Iowa Wild is to help the Minnesota Wild franchise succeed by developing players who can successfully play in Minnesota, such as Jason Zucker, who scored a game-winning playoff goal for Minnesota after spending much of his season with the Wild’s previous AHL franchise, the Houston Aeros. That side of the operation is controlled by the Minnesota front office.
The business side of the equation, run by Frederickson’s team, is secondary. That said, “We’re not in this to lose money,” he said.
Minnesota’s front office approached Events Center General Manager Connolly toward the end of last summer, Connolly said. His initial reaction was opposition to bringing a third team to the building, already home to the Iowa Energy basketball team and the Iowa Barnstormers arena football team. But the more Connolly and his staff researched and talked with Minnesota ownership, the more attractive the proposition became.
Connolly told the Business Record two years ago that it would take local ownership to get an AHL team back in Des Moines, as opposed to the situation the Stars and Chops had under the ownership of Dallas-based Schlegel Sports. But the Wild owner and front office personal provided an even more attractive option; the ownership is only a few hours’ drive away, has a vested interest in the success of its AHL team and will be regularly seen in Des Moines.
“I’ve got to tell you, if this was not the ideal situation for us here at the Iowa Events Center, we wouldn’t have done it,” Connolly said. “I don’t know of another situation that would have worked or been attractive to us here.”
The Minnesota Wild will help Iowa with resources such as information technology, human resources and finance. Beyond that, and a reason that Frederickson is confident about the Iowa operation’s success, the Wild will have a local staff of 20 to run the business operations of the team, including a ticket sales staff of 11. That will allow the organization to get up and running faster, and build relationships in the community. The Chops and Stars typically employed 15 or 16 people, Connolly said.
A monetary loser?
Jerry Crawford isn’t confident that a hockey team can be profitable.
Crawford, a Des Moines attorney and the managing owner of the Iowa Energy, has a gripe in part because things just got tougher for his franchise, which shares a building and overlapping calendar with the Wild. Still, he also has an understanding of the challenge an AHL hockey franchise faces to make money.
Crawford was one of the leaders in trying to make a Minnesota Wild affiliate the main tenant in the soon-to-open Wells Fargo Arena in the early 2000s. The Wild, under different management at the time, knew they would lose money in Des Moines, Crawford said. But part of the deal would have been for the Wild to manage the arena, which would put the organization “solidly in the black,” Crawford said.
That’s not what happened, and Polk County officials made what Crawford calls a “very bad decision” to give a “sweetheart deal” to Global Spectrum to manage the arena, and have the hockey team come in as a tenant.
“We knew it was a (monetary) loser in 2004, and that was proven when the first two teams come in and go broke,” said Crawford, referring to the Stars and Chops. “So by splitting up managing the building and owning the hockey team, the county ensured that hockey would fail.”
Frederickson declined to share the costs of running a hockey franchise, but he did say it is more expensive than running an NBA Development League franchise such as the Energy.
Crawford said AHL teams typically have a budget of $4 million or $5 million, while the Energy’s budget is about $1.5 million.
“I can’t imagine any scenario where they break even, and that’s despite the fact that I believe this to be a tremendous organization,” Crawford said.
“I think there’s no question that over time, as we continue to grow this and we become one of Des Moines’ marquee franchises,” he said. “I think we can be profitable and we can be very successful.”
Long-term, not short-term
Frederickson is confident in long-term success, but warns that the team will be under the gun to get things going this year. Normally a new franchise has a year to 18 months to get up and running. The Wild only have until October.
Case in point: The team has ordered jerseys for the upcoming season, but doesn’t expect to receive them until about two weeks before the first game.
“We’re not going to take a look at what our attendance is in October or November and use that as any type of judgment as to whether or not this franchise will be successful,” Frederickson said. “We’re going to look at our attendance three, four, five years down the road.”
As such, the team doesn’t yet have a goal for how many fans it will strive for, nor has it set ticket prices, other than acknowledging that tickets have to be affordable. The Chops averaged 4,322 fans per game in their final season; the Houston Aeros averaged 6,793 fans per game this past season.
The focus for Iowa right now is on building relationships – relationships with fans, businesses and professional groups. A key thing to remember, Frederickson said, is that it’s not just about attracting hockey fans; it’s about attracting people who are just looking for a fun thing to do. That’s a model that the Iowa Cubs’ Bernabe has long followed.
“I think this is another step for the city. I think it’s a great feather in the city’s cap to be able to provide this kind of entertainment,” Bernabe said. “The city should work hard to coddle all that. Because if it goes away, it won’t ever be back.”
Can other teams survive?
The Iowa Energy basketball team will share Wells Fargo Arena and an overlapping schedule with the Wild, and the Des Moines Buccaneers junior hockey team could be going after some of the same fans. Can they survive?
What does Iowa Energy Managing Owner Jerry Crawford think the long-term future holds for his team?
DES MOINES BUCCANEERS:
“We just have to see how it goes,” he said.
His worries include whether the Energy will get priority dates for their games in the future, and that the Energy run on a much smaller staff of seven or eight people, which will make it a harder fight for sponsorships and ticket revenue.
“My partnership group has never done this to make a profit,” he said. “But we don’t want people to have such a lack of appreciation for our efforts that they bring in somebody to compete against us, either. So if the Wild, if their operation cannibalizes our ticket sales or our sponsorship revenue, there’s no reason we shouldn’t sell our franchise.”
Crawford imagines a scenario where the Energy and Iowa Barnstormers decide not to try to compete with the Wild, and sell their teams. Then, if hockey fails, “the county has nothing going on in the building,” he said.
“I just don’t understand where (the county) is coming from in bringing hockey in,” Crawford said.
Chris Connolly, general manager of the Iowa Events Center, said he wouldn’t have considered bringing the Wild in if he thought it would drive out either of the two existing tenants. That said, Connolly acknowledges that it’s going to be more difficult for the Energy and Barnstormers to gain fan support and advertising sales.
The arena’s lease agreement is fair for all teams, he said. The Energy and Barnstormers have an advantage in that their premium seating contracts – which include suites and club seats – are locked in, meaning that seat-holders can add Wild seats to their contract, but can’t replace Energy or Barnstormers seats with them.
The arena was also able to work out a schedule for the Energy for next season that will be very comparable to last season, pending league approval, Connolly said.
Crawford won’t be satisfied until he knows the Energy will get priority in future seasons.
“They’re going to have to fight harder, they’re going to have to work harder, they’re going to have to be more ‘hands in the pot’ going after advertising dollars,” Connolly said. “I think that’s undeniable.”
But both teams can make it, he said.
“The last thing we want next year is for the Energy to say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to renew our lease,’ or ‘We’re going to look elsewhere,’” Connolly said. “We would deem that as a failure. And that would be a shame.”
Two years ago, when there were few rumblings of the American Hockey League (AHL) coming back to Des Moines, a Buccaneers spokesperson told the Business Record that the market might not be big enough to support two hockey teams.
The organization is taking the opposite stance now.
“There’s enough pie for all of us,” said Dawn Pentico, general manager of business operations for the Buccaneers. “Of course we’ll compete in some respect. But as far as stealing fans and what have you, I don’t see that as problematic. I think there’s enough of a market share.”
In fact, Wild representatives have already had an initial conversation with reps from the Bucs, something that never happened when the Stars and Chops were in town, Pentico said. The conversation centered around how to work together to support the sport of hockey in the metro area.
The organizations see some natural synergies between their products. The Wild are in the AHL, the second-best hockey league in the country behind the National Hockey League (NHL). The Bucs are in the U.S. Hockey League (USHL), regarded as the top junior hockey league in the country. USHL players, who are between the ages of 16 and 21, often get picked up by NHL teams (and then sent to the minor league AHL). So there’s a good chance that fans could see Des Moines Buccaneers players someday play for the Wild or a team that plays against the Wild.
“Now (fans) get a chance to see those kids up close and personal as they advance through the rankings,” Pentico said. “It’s kind of a full cycle, if you will.”
Pentico said that past AHL teams didn’t affect the Bucs’ attendance, and if anything, she expects a slight increase in attendance this go-around.
“Obviously, when you raise awareness, people tend to kind of look more in-depth for those opportunities,” she said.
Why the Chops flopped
Read a related story in the Business Record archives about why the Iowa Chops franchise was unsuccessful in Des Moines here.