Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Pigs Won't Feed Ducks

Sorry, ladies. There will be no hockey in Mudville this season. The AHL announced today that the Iowa Chops franchise has been involuntarily suspended for the 2009-10 season after failing certain AHL by-laws and stipulations. I was fairly harsh towards the Chops when they debuted their team name last season, but I clarified in a second article what I was trying to convey after feeling the rage coming from the Hawkeye State. With today's news, however, it has become very apparent that professional hockey in Iowa might be a lost cause. Especially if owned by Schlegel Sports.

Let's go back to May 8, 2009 where some devastating news was dropped on Des Moines. The Anaheim Ducks notified the AHL team that they were terminating the agreement signed by the two franchises based upon the Chops failing to meet financial commitments set out in their agreement. I'm not exactly sure what the agreement stated, but clearly the Chops did not meet financial benchmarks set out by the agreement, and this gave the Ducks the opportunity to walk away. As an AHL franchise with no NHL affiliation, the Chops were behind the eight-ball for this upcoming summer.

There were cryptic messages posted on the Chops' website regarding the work that was going on behind-the-scenes to keep the Chops in Des Moines. Steve Nitzel, President of the Iowa Chops, posted this message on the site on May 11, 2009:

"I would like to let our fans... make that our best fans, our season ticketholders, feel at ease about the recent news regarding our affliation[sic] situation. I believe it’s the fans who take the biggest blow and that hurts me personally as I consider myself one of the biggest fans on the planet. In a move to show our commitment to customer service, the Iowa Chops have put a 30-day hold on the season ticket renewal deadline (was June 15th, now July 15th). I want to assure all of our fans that we are working feverishly to solve our current situation as quickly as possible. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at 515-564-8700 or myself directly at 515-564-8720. Thank you for your support of the Iowa Chops!"
Working feverishly? There was no NHL affiliation on the horizon, there were some obvious emerging financial issues after the deal with the Ducks fell through, and the Chops were 17th out of 29 teams in AHL attendance after the 2008-09 season, averaging 4322 fans per game. I'm not sure how Mr. Nitzel was "working feverishly" to correct these problems when he cut off the only cashflow the Chops had over the summer.

However, I'll give the Chops the benefit of the doubt. I'll assume they worked their tails off to keep AHL hockey in Des Moines. I'm sure they were contacting the two NHL teams who didn't have an AHL affiliation - Edmonton and Dallas - in an attempt to try to forge an agreement with those franchises to continue their AHL battle. Except that the Dallas Stars pulled up roots after the Iowa Stars failed. And the Edmonton Oilers still own the rights to a suspended franchise in the Edmonton Roadrunners. Essentially, there was no team to contact in the NHL for an affiliation. So what work were the Chops doing? How were they working to save hockey in Des Moines?

On June 3, Aaron Artman, Vice-President of Teams for Schlegel Sports, posted this statement on the Chops' website:
"Schlegel Sports continues to work toward a solution for what we hope is a win-win for Polk County, Global Spectrum, and the hockey fans of Des Moines. The company is having conversations with the parties involved and we are working toward the best end result, with the best of intentions, and hope to have a clearer picture on a solution later this month."
A clearer picture? This is as clear as mud right now. No NHL agreement. No season ticket sales. No resolution to the financial problems that they experienced with the Ducks. What exactly was this franchise doing in the previous month after Mr. Nitzel's unofficial guarantee that he would do all he could to save hockey in Des Moines because he is "one of the biggest fans on the planet"?

This almost appears to be a public relations campaign for Schlegel Sports where the owners "did everything possible", as the rhetoric goes, despite facing all these obstacles.

13 days later, on June 16, there is another cryptic statement placed on the Chops' website, only this one is missing an author:
We’d like to remain patient as The County works through the options we’ve presented them with regard to the Iowa Chops. And while not getting too specific – as again, our intent is to remain patient while they evaluate the next steps – we’ve provided a few options that save professional hockey in Des Moines.

"Our intent behind this is to maintain not only the important revenue streams during hockey season to Global Spectrum and Polk County, but to also ensure that downtown businesses, bars and restaurants benefit from a hockey team, their fans, and their corporate partners. Regarding the scenario where we bring in a local partner and Central Hockey League team at our cost, we would ensure that fans and businesses can rely on the stewardship and relationships that a Des Moines area partner brings to the region and the operation.

"These solutions we’ve provided also ensure quick payment to all vendors both in Des Moines and within the broader hockey and business community."
Hold on a second. Did you catch that statement? "Regarding the scenario where we bring in a local partner and Central Hockey League team at our cost"?

On June 16, 2009, the Chops issued a statement that there would be no AHL in Des Moines, Iowa for the 2009-10 season. Not only that, but they have explored the possibility of (A) finding a new owner, and (B) bringing in a CHL team! Do you really believe that the Schlegel Sports group was interested in keeping the team at all? Remember, this was a team that, 13 days earlier, told everyone that they were working on a solution that was win-win for everyone involved. Not only that, but Mr. Nitzel told everyone that they were working on a solution. Was the solution to undercut the community by replacing the AHL franchise with a CHL franchise, and not tell your most important assets in your fans?

Speaking of which, June 22 saw another message posted to the Chops' website. Again, no name attached, but this one was directed right at those who were doing their part to support their AHL franchise:
"The Iowa Chops would like to inform their season ticket holders, who have made a financial commitment toward tickets for the 2009-10 season, that their payment and/or deposit has been transferred to the offices of Global Spectrum. Global Spectrum is the management company of the Iowa Events Center and the Wells Fargo Arena."
And it's become very apparent that the dream of keeping the Chops in the AHL in Des Moines was all but over. Schlegel Sports, "working feverishly" to remedy the AHL situation, fixed the problem by essentially screwing everyone over - the fans, the arena, the employees, the businesses near the arena, and the sponsors.

Remember when I said that "Iowa's New Team Stinks"? I was wrong. It was simply the ownership that stunk. And to the fans of the AHL in Iowa, I'm sorry that this had to happen. Over 170,000 people went to the Fargo Wells Arena last year to watch the Chops battle their AHL opposition, and Schlegel Sports basically is giving them all the finger.

Maybe it's just me, but, after this saga, does anyone else think that the Chops stink?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Anonymous said...

Remember the warnings about Nitzel last Summer from people in Kansas City?

And there we have it.

One thing: the Chops putting season ticket sales on hold didn't truly affect their current cash flow. Advance ticket sales money by law has to be put into an escrow account and isn't available to the organization until after the game has been played, so the Chops wouldn't have access to any of that money until after the first home game, and even then only the amount that applies to the first home game.

Teebz said...

Great comment, Anon. I am aware of the escrow thing, but if they had cashflow problems last season, they only made it worse by bringing no money in over the summer.

All in all, a very sketchy ownership situation.