Why the Iowa Chops flopped
Friday, June 03, 2011 7:00 AM
If the Iowa Cubs are the gold standard for how to run a sport franchise in Des Moines, the former Iowa Stars and Iowa Chops American Hockey League (AHL) franchise is probably the lead standard of how not to run a franchise.
Despite averaging 4,322 fans per game in the club’s fourth and final season in 2008-09 – similar to numbers the Iowa Energy posted in its fourth season – operations folded when the team’s owners, Dallas-based Schlegel Sports, racked up a mountain of debt, lost their affiliation with the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks and were forced by the AHL to suspend operations for the 2009-10 season.
“I think the AHL team missed the boat horribly when they came to town,” said Iowa Cubs President and General Manager Sam Bernabe. “They just expected the town to understand and know what the highest level of minor league hockey was all about. Hockey is not baseball; I think the hockey team had every reason and every ability to help the community understand what they were.”
Iowa Energy managing owner Jerry Crawford, whose team shared Wells Fargo Arena with the hockey team for two seasons, said the reason a basketball franchise has more of a chance is because operation costs for an NBA Developmental League team are about a third of the cost of operating an AHL franchise. Crawford also pointed out that the Energy is locally owned, which he said helps forge a relationship with the community.
Also important to note is the presence of an existing hockey team in the area – the Des Moines Buccaneers. The Buccaneers play in the junior-level U.S. Hockey League, whereas the AHL is the top affiliate to the National Hockey League. The Buccaneers, though, had more than 25 years of tradition to offset the difference in skill levels.
“It’s not a matter of whether it was pro hockey or junior hockey. It’s a matter that one was already established,” said Scott Montesano, radio announcer and media relations manager for the Buccaneers. “This is a wonderful market for sports, but it probably was not big enough for two hockey teams. You are, in essence, going after the same people.”
Iowa Events Center General Manager Chris Connolly wouldn’t rule out the return of a professional hockey team in Des Moines, but said it would have to be the “ideal situation.”
That would include three things: local ownership, reasonable ticket prices and a reputable league, most likely the AHL. The hockey team would also have to be able to share a schedule with the Energy, which plays during the same calendar period. The Chops provided the Events Center with 40 home games.
“I still get that question asked: Will there be hockey here in the future?” Connolly said. “Obviously there still is a fan base for hockey, and they want to know. If there would be a situation out there that presented itself that we felt could work, we would certainly take a hard look at it.”
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