Sears Centre untroubled by loss of hockey team
Hockey team a small part of bookings
Though the Chicago Express hockey team Friday announced it was folding after only one season at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, village and arena officials explained why they believe the impact will be minimal compared to the loss of several other minor league teams in the early years of the facility.
Indeed, in the final months of 2009, such setbacks were threatening to close the Sears Centre altogether. And if the 11,000-seat arena near I-90 and Route 59 had had to close for even six months to a year, it might have proved impossible to get it going again, Hoffman Estates Mayor Bill McLeod said.
"We had to actually do a foreclosure to get (control of) the Sears Centre," he said.
The village had loaned Minnesota-based Ryan Cos. $55 million in 2005 to build the center. Though it was largely a "friendly" action against Ryan Cos., it left taxpayers even more on the hook when Hoffman Estates became the owner and liable for any operating losses.
But the village's late-2009 decision to hire Philadelphia-based Global Spectrum -- a division of cable giant Comcast Spector -- to manage the facility has strengthened the arena's drawing power and helped make the gamble pay off, McLeod said.
"They've done stupendously better," he said. "They've even outperformed what I expected."
In fact, the Sears Centre broke even on the cost of operations in 2011 for the first time, he said.
Ben Gibbs, general manager of the Sears Centre, said it's the nationwide presence of Global Spectrum that has helped improve the quality and quantity of bookings.
"We had our best year ever in 2011, and hockey was only a small part of that," Gibbs said after the Chicago Express' announcement. "Financially, we know we can fill those dates with more profitable shows."
As an example of what's possible, he mentioned this weekend's three-day appearance by Circus Spectacular, which has sold 30,000 tickets.
Gibbs said he is sorry for the Chicago Express fans, and the loss of a great business partner in team owner Craig Drecktrah.
But minor league sports bring both pros and cons for the managers of medium-sized arenas, Gibbs said.
On the one hand, a season of home games brings a lot of bookings with just one phone call. But on the other hand, without the drawing power of a major league team like the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat, such sporting events don't bring a guarantee of filling a stadium to the same degree as other types of shows, he said.
"In our business, we want no dark days," Gibbs said. "As long as you're filling dates with profitable shows, no one is going to question how you did it."
The Express accounted for about 3 percent of the Sears Centre's revenues in 2011, Gibbs aid.
Despite the passing of another minor league team, the arena has remained the home of the Chicago Slaughter arena football team for all six years of its existence. Robert Morris University's basketball team played there last year and might return.
Gibbs said owner Drecktrah was an upstanding businessman to the end and gave plenty of notice that the team would not be returning for its contracted second and third season.
"Some teams fold just weeks before the start of the season, and that can be devastating," Gibbs said. "We feel very grateful we had a guy like Craig to work with."
Drecktrah was not available Friday but did release a statement.
"Although the Chicago Express are ceasing operations, on behalf of the staff and players, I would like to extend our sincere gratitude and appreciation for all the support we received from the village of Hoffman Estates, Global Spectrum, our business and community partners, our corporate sponsors, and especially, our fans," he said. "I would also like to thank our ECHL partners, and wish good luck to those teams participating in the 2012 Kelly Cup Playoffs."
ECHL records show that the Express had the lowest home attendance in the 20-team league.
Across the 36 games of last season, the Sears Centre drew 90,273 fans -- an average of 2,508 per game. The league average was 4,282 per game.
The Express was an affiliate of the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets and posted a winning record of 34-26-8-4 for 80 points, just narrowly missing the ECHL playoffs due to losing a tiebreaker.
Team officials said any vouchers for Chicago Express Youth Jerseys still can be redeemed at the Sears Centre Arena box office. People must have the voucher with them for jersey redemption. The vouchers expire on June 1.
Gibbs said he had no insight into Drecktrah's business decision to shut down the team or whether it said anything about the general viability of a minor-league hockey franchise in this market.
"If there's a local owner with a passion for hockey, I'm sure we're a place he'll think of," Gibbs said.
McLeod agrees that the folding of the Express will have no real financial impact on the Sears Centre, but wonders if the passing of so many minor league teams might begin to create a perceptual problem.
Among other teams that have come and gone were the Chicago Hounds hockey team, which also folded, and the Chicago Bliss lingerie football team that moved to Toyota Park in Bridgeview.
McLeod said he himself has become too skeptical to accept any pitch for a one-season contract. And he realizes that even with a three-season commitment like the Express made, nothing is ever guaranteed.
"What is a commitment when you ultimately come down to it?" he asked. "People go into bankruptcy. People go into foreclosure. We can't force people to run a hockey team they no longer want to run."