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The American Hockey League has seen a 12 percent increase in attendance during the first five weeks of its season — a good number, but not strong enough to declare that the NHL lockout has been a boon for the top minor hockey league in North America.
When measured against last season’s first five weeks of the regular season, average attendance among the AHL’s 30 teams is up, to 5,291 from 4,720, but some of the numbers from this season are a bit skewed. For example, the Bridgeport (Conn.) Sound Tigers, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, gave away free tickets to a pair of games on Nov. 3-4 as a civic gesture. The near-capacity crowds in Bridgeport lifted the Sound Tigers’ average to 7,650, third-best in the league and up from 5,461 at the same point a year ago.
Some gates suggest that hockey has been missed in a few NHL markets. A game played in Montreal’s Bell Centre on Nov. 9 between the Hamilton Bulldogs (the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate) and the Syracuse Crunch drew 18,582 fans. The Bulldogs’ average of 7,353 was fourth-best in the league and more than double their mark of 3,390 after the opening five weeks of the 2011-12 season.
Similarly, Rochester (the Buffalo Sabres’ AHL affiliate) drew almost 11,000 for a game last month against Hamilton in Buffalo’s First Niagara Center. And the Toronto Marlies have become an outlet for fans missing the parent club, the Maple Leafs. The Marlies’ average of 6,084 fans was almost twice what they were drawing early last season.
“The Leafs not playing is part of it, but it’s not the entire story,” Andrews said. “The Marlies made it to the Calder Cup Finals last year and their fan base has been growing for a while. Even when the NHL returns, we’re confident the Marlies will thrive.”
Oklahoma City’s Nugent-Hopkins helped drive ticket sales away from home.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
The AHL has received added exposure on TV this season through Sportsnet, the national network in Canada, which is picking up AHL broadcasts during the NHL lockout. Andrews also points to rising metrics on the Web and in social media as evidence of a good start for the league. According to the league, Web traffic is up 84 percent and the AHL’s number of Twitter followers has almost doubled to more than 26,000 since the end of last season.
“The NHL is our partner, so we hope for its return as soon as possible,” Andrews said. “We viewed the lockout only as a chance for a brighter light to be put, however long it lasted, on our league, franchises and players. In that respect, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far.”
But the trade also carries significant risk for the Blue Jays, whose 2013 payroll is set to balloon to more than $115 million, by far the largest sum in franchise history.
Jose Reyes (left) and Emilio Bonifacio would be among the players going from Miami to Toronto.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
Team President and CEO Paul Beeston declined to comment last week on the deal or its financial implications on the club, but MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said Beeston told him the Toronto market responded with vigor to news of the trade.
“Mr. Beeston says they’re very excited in Toronto,” Selig said.
The trade comes at a notable time in Toronto’s overall sports landscape. With the beloved Maple Leafs out of action amid the NHL lockout, and the NBA Raptors and MLS Toronto FC still among the laggards of their respective leagues, the Blue Jays now hold a unique opportunity to dominate the local market like never before.
Last week’s league approval of $12.4 billion in national TV contracts will bring to each MLB club the infusion of more than $25 million per year in additional revenue beginning in 2014, a significant factor fueling the trade. But while Toronto already is a larger media market than every U.S. MLB market except for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, the Blue Jays historically have been a midtier player with regard to revenue, attendance and payroll.
“That’s a lot of [player] contracts they just took on,” said one rival club executive last week, referencing the $163.75 million in contract commitments going north. “A lot still has to fall into place.”
■ NO GLOBAL CONCERNS: The 2013 World Baseball Classic, now in the midst of newly added qualifying round play and set for its full return in March, was among the topics of committee discussion last week, as the league prepares for the third version of the international tournament. Even as the event continues to grow, the WBC in recent weeks has suffered the high-profile departures of Texas pitcher Yu Darvish, a former star for two-time defending champion Japan, as well as Cleveland outfielder Shin-Soo Choo of Korea and Milwaukee outfielder Norichika Aoki, also of Japan.
The WBC also might be without, due to injury, Boston designated hitter David Ortiz, a former participant for the Dominican Republic, and likely without the services of Derek Jeter, by many accounts the most popular player in the game and a prior fixture for Team USA.
Even beyond players such as these, many teams maintain an uneasy balance regarding the WBC, wanting to support the international development of baseball but concerned about sacrificing their own players to injury. MLB executives say such worries remain minor.
Preliminary rosters are set to be announced Dec. 3.
“We’re not concerned, really,” said Paul Archey, MLB senior vice president of international business operations. “We’ve seen a lot of interest from players and we remain very optimistic.”
Added Selig, “This is really important, and I think teams understand that. This will be the biggest WBC we’ve ever had, and I believe the clubs have been very cooperative.”
The NBA Development League tips off its 2012-13 season this week with 11 of its 16 teams now having single-affiliation deals with NBA clubs, continuing an increase in the NBA-owned minor league.Of the 11 direct affiliations, five include an agreement by an NBA team to fund the basketball operations of the affiliated D-League franchise, creating a hybrid ownership model between NBA owners and D-League team owners. The latest NBA teams striking such deals for this season are Boston and Portland.
Nine D-League teams had direct affiliations with NBA clubs last season. That number was five in 2010-11 and four the season before that.
The D-League begins its 2012 season on Friday.
Five other NBA teams own their own D-League teams outright, the same number as last season. The Texas Legends are an independent team, but with Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson as the majority owner of the team, they are a single affiliate of the Mavericks.
“The hybrid model is an accelerating trend, and several more NBA teams are interested in either acquiring their own [D-League] team outright or entering into a financial partnership with a D-League team,” said Dan Reed, president of the NBA Development League.
Reed would not disclose any of the league’s specific financial information, but as one measure of the league, past sales of D-League teams have surpassed $2 million.
Helping drive the NBA’s interest in the D-League are changes in the league’s collective-bargaining agreement. The new CBA, which took effect last year, allows NBA teams more flexibility in shuffling players between the parent team and its affiliated D-League franchise.
The D-League last season had a record 60 player call-ups to the NBA, and 92 players on 2012-13 NBA rosters have D-League experience.
The D-League projects that its total attendance for this season will surpass last year’s mark of 1,055,239. Last year was the third consecutive season the league surpassed the 1 million mark.
As of Nov. 14, full-season-equivalent ticket sales were up 7 percent, and team sponsorship revenue was up by double-digit percentages, though Reed would not disclose specifics.
“Clearly we have seen an increased commitment, more attention and more expertise around the basketball operations,” said Erie BayHawks owner Steven Demetriou. “We can focus as owners on the commercial side, where we feel we have success.”
Four D-League teams have local jersey deals, with the latest deal signed by the Springfield Armor with MGM Springfield. That deal was expected to be announced as early as last week. The other teams with jersey deals are Rio Grande Valley (Lone Star National Bank), Erie (Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine) and Texas (Choctaw Casino Resorts).
One major change for the 2012-13 D-League season is on television. CBS Sports Network will broadcast a 12-game regular-season schedule along with postseason play for a total of 20 games. Last year’s media partner, Comcast Sports, broadcast a total of 80 games regionally.
In addition to the new deal with CBS Sports Network, NBA TV will broadcast more than 30 games, the same number as last season, Reed said.
Ejections rose 7 percent to 3,520, NFL officials said, though without a wave of smoking-related ejections in California stadiums, especially in Oakland, that number would have fallen from 2011. Arrests were up 19 percent, to 453. Those numbers translate to about 27 ejections and three arrests per game, with approximately 130 games having been played at the season’s midpoint.
League and team officials do not see the increases as a negative. Rather, they cite the numbers as evidence that clubs are cracking down on the type of poor fan behavior that has brought the NFL and its teams the wrong kind of attention for the in-stadium experience in recent years.
“This is part of a pretty positive trend,” said Jeff Miller, NFL head of security, who pointed to text-messaging services in stadiums as a big factor in helping teams identify trouble early. “Clubs can have more ejections or arrests because they are committed [to enforcing fan codes of conduct].”
That has been the experience in Oakland, where the Raiders ejected nearly 100 fans at their first home game for refusing to put out their cigarettes, said Amy Trask, team president. That count represented most of the ejections on that day.
Trask has been working hard to change the perception of the Oakland fan base as unruly, if not scary. Almost 1,000 fans have been ejected since the season began, with a healthy portion of that number being for smoking-related offenses.
“We are certainly committed to enforcing our fan code of conduct,” Trask said.
The NFL developed an official league-level fan code of conduct several years ago, seeking to stamp out behavior such as public intoxication, foul language and harassment of fans wearing visiting club colors. Most teams already had such codes of their own in place, but those that did not subsequently developed team-specific codes, as well.
While the NFL is not trying to slice off smoking ejections as a different category of fan behavior — stressing that the activity can be a clear disturbance for any surrounding fans — the league does note that without these ejections, the number of ejections overall would have declined in the first half of the year.
In Philadelphia, another city with a reputation for aggressive fans, ejections and arrests are up, but also because of increased enforcement, said Leonard Bonacci, Eagles vice president of events.
“Where we are having success is with the use of technology,” Bonacci said, principally referring to text messages that fans can send to security. “Fans now have an outlet [to immediately report] if someone is eroding the quality of their experience.”
The Eagles survey their fans online four times a year through J.D. Power and Associates, and Bonacci said there has been a statistically significant increase in positive fan satisfaction responses.
In Arizona, the Cardinals have seen a decline in ejections, said Michael Bidwill, team president and chairman of the NFL committee that’s in charge of policing fan conduct.
Bidwill stressed the importance leaguewide of fans thinking well of the NFL game experience.
“This is a business issue,” Bidwill said, “because if fans have a negative experience, they are not as inclined to come back and buy a ticket.”