Record Revenue and Attendance Has Business Booming Again for the American Hockey League

Record Revenue and Attendance Has Business Booming Again for the American Hockey League
Coachella Valley Firebirds fans cheer for their team during a Calder Cup Finals hockey game in Palm Desert, Calif. on June 10, 2023. (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun via AP)
The Associated Press

More than 10,000 fans filled the Hershey Bears’ home arena on Tuesday night to watch the oldest American Hockey League franchise take on the newest, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, in the Calder Cup Finals.

It was the third consecutive game in the AHL championship series to be sold out and pushed total playoff attendance for the NHL’s top developmental league above half a million fans. That’s a record for the nearly 90-year-old league that also set a new high water mark for revenue, which president and CEO Scott Howson estimates is 15% to 20% above pre-pandemic levels.

Three years after canceling the playoffs and two years after gutting through a shortened season with almost no fans in arenas and a few teams opting out of playing entirely, business is finally booming again for the AHL.

“We’ve just recovered so quickly,” Howson told The Associated Press this week. “It’s a testament to our product. It’s a testament to our markets. It’s a testament to what our teams are doing and what the staffs of our teams are doing to put people in the building.”

Howson, who was tabbed for the job in February 2020 just before the pandemic started and took over for longtime leader David Andrews that summer, credited the NHL for its support in getting through the days of empty arenas and daily virus testing. AHL revenue plunged 85 percent to 95 percent from its last full season in 2018-19, and a handful of teams sought federal relief funds.

Among the 32 teams (21 are owned by NHL clubs and 11 are independent) some still have not made up all the ground lost to the pandemic, Howson said, but there’s no concern of any shutting down operations or folding—which was a fear across minor league sports this time three years ago.

“There’s really no weak spots,” Howson said. “Some are obviously doing better than others, some markets are better than others, but we’re really stable from an ownership point of view and a market point of view.”

The final between Coachella Valley and Hershey, the remainder of which will be televised on the NHL Network, is the perfect example of how the AHL has rebounded. While the Bears are an institution in central Pennsylvania, the first-year Firebirds had to generate interest in hockey in the California desert 120 miles east of Los Angeles.

They actually had to do it twice. Snowbirds made up a big chunk of their fan base during the season, and when they left this spring, Coachella Valley pivoted to market to a local crowd that has since embraced the team on what could be an expansion-year championship run.

Howson said Coachella Valley, co-owned by the Seattle Kraken, and the Henderson Silver Knights, owned and operated by the new Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights, have “raised the bar for everybody” as revenue generators. He called Hershey a model franchise, one the AHL would love to replicate in other cities given the history, tradition and fervent interest.

But even for the Bears it was a slow build, given the pandemic challenges financially and reticence to go back into full arenas. Games earlier in the playoffs in Hershey and Coachella Valley were not sellouts, but fans have since returned in droves.

“It’s a big task to get back on track, but I really believe that they have,” said John Walton, the Washington Capitals radio play-by-play broadcaster who spent nine years as the voice of the Hershey Bears. “You can look at what’s gone on and say, ‘Hey, they’re finally back now.’”

Walton, who got to broadcast three Calder Cup championships before earning his NHL call-up, cited a changing media landscape and no playoffs in 2020 or 2021 as hurdles facing AHL teams. Players took 48% of their salaries to get through the 2021 season and not to lose a full year of development.

“The players have really committed to the game and to the AHL, and I think down the road they’ll be rewarded for it,” Professional Hockey Players’ Association executive director Larry Landon said Thursday, referring to the next round of collective bargaining talks. “It’s great to see for hockey. I think the whole sport has bounced back.”

There was also the challenge of the NHL expanding from 30 to 32 teams since 2017, which took nearly 50 players out of the talent pool. Still, the AHL has maintained its standard.

“There’s so many positive things going on with our league right now from a business point of view, and I think it starts with the hockey,” Howson said. “The entertainment value’s really high, and that translates into the business.”

By Stephen Whyno