The Ruining of the Bulls: San Francisco's Latest Experiment with Minor League Hockey Abruptly Fails

In late 2011, Pat Curcio ambled through the unlit, pungent repository of dust, filth, and flattened beer cases that is the Cow Palace. The arena was as battered as it was archaic, but the coach and president of the nascent San Francisco Bulls hockey team was ebullient: "If we give this building a little love," he said, "maybe she'll give it back to us."

But the Cow Palace takes and takes and takes — love, money, beer cases — and gives little in return. Halfway through its second season, the team on Monday announced it was abruptly folding after negotiations with a Fresno-based ownership group fell through.

Sports are unpredictable. But, sadly, the Bulls' demise was entirely predictable — in spite of the exciting, physical hockey on display for those who deigned to show up. The three foreboding omens of failure alluded to in a 2012 SF Weekly cover story all came to pass:

ECHL teams fail. The Bulls' league was founded in 1988 with five teams. Since that time, it has expanded to 22 squads. But all five original teams have folded, moved, or both. Of the 41 teams established between 1990 and 2011, only 12 remain in the original location. In league history, teams have moved 18 times and 33 teams have folded.

Minor-league teams in major-league cities fail. The cost of doing business in San Francisco is high. The cost for fans attending minor-league games is low. That's ominous math. So's this: In San Francisco, where consumers have entertainment options, the Bulls averaged only 2,292 fans per game — 21st in a 22-team league.

Teams playing in the Cow Palace fail. In 2012, former players and executives with the San Francisco Shamrocks and San Francisco Spiders — minor-league hockey squads that also abruptly ceased to exist — wished the Bulls well. Then they rattled off a litany of warnings about the team's home ice. All proved prescient. Curcio and his partners sunk millions into modernizing a thoroughly obsolete venue; the scoreboard alone cost a purported $1 million. But, like an old sailboat, the more money the Cow Palace absorbed, the more it needed; that $1 million scoreboard required $250,000 of additional electrical infrastructure. Installing a new ice system, originally penciled out at $100,000, ended up costing more than seven times that.

No amount of money, meanwhile, will transport the Cow Palace into a safe and transit-friendly neighborhood. And, even for those who bought in, the seats closest to the ice have terrible sightlines — rendering the best seats in the house the worst while the worst are actually the best.

Skating is hard. Skating uphill is nearly impossible. And, now, the Bulls are skating away.

 
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6 comments
bullsnomore
bullsnomore

Does the Cow Palace take money from the state? NO! I find it interesting that people who criticize a venue for a show failure are the first to blame the venue. NOT the lack of management of the show or team. As I've said before, do you tell your landlord that you're not making the money you thought you were, so can I pay less or no rent. The other tenants can pick up the financial slack. Would you do that DaveYardShift? I don't think so. Putting together a sports team takes more than having athletes. Common sense and great management just to break even in this market. BTW? I'm still wondering what the millions in improvements are?  Anybody with knowledge want to answer that one?

Stiff Shots
Stiff Shots

Second (third?) the comments from "crisfs" and "aaliebert".  I'm an East Coaster who, for the past three years, has attended the Dickens Fair at the Cow Palace, and have no issues whatsoever with the venue; it doesn't detract from the Fair, and in fact Dickens gives the Palace a nice, cozy feel it would otherwise lack in the cold light of day.  It sounds like Curcio tried (and failed) to make the venue work for hockey, despite warnings to the contrary.  This isn't the venue's fault.

chrisfs
chrisfs

Criticizing the Cow Palace itself seems like dodging the blame. I have been to the Dickens Christmas Fair held at the Cow Palace every year since it started in 2000. It's been a great venue for that. In the Bay Area, where venue space is getting smaller and more expensive each year, the Cow Palace is a great place for events that are bigger than a night club but smaller than a sports stadium.

aaliebert
aaliebert

I'm always kind of amazed at the vitriol people like to throw at the good ol' CP. I've attended numerous events here over the years which I would like to keep going to, and for which there is no other suitable venue in the Bay Area. I'm sorry the Bulls couldn't take off, but it seems like that had at least as much to do (or more) with management, not venue. 

On the other hand, we all know there is a small, but very vocal, minority always yelling about tearing this place down. Why? Because as much as people *LOVE* to trash that neighborhood, it is good old fashioned Bay Area real estate, which means it is valuable as hell to developers! Don't be fooled- the reason you have heard so many bad things about this place is because someone wants to make a million (or billion) off it. 

DaveYardShift
DaveYardShift

I frankly was surprised the Bulls survived one season at the Cow Palace.

Hockey fans in the Bay Area are spoiled by the Sharks, which is a top-flight organization that has fielded a quality team more consistently than the other four major sports franchises in Northern California. (Yes, the Giants have won two World Series, but have immediately followed those up with surprisingly subpar seasons.)  SAP Center is a magnificent building to witness a game of any kind, and was built for specifically for hockey.  The Stockton Arena, which the city built before the housing bubble that made it possible burst, is still a fantastic mid-sized facility, and a great place to watch hockey. Even professional roller hockey at the pre-renovation Oakland Coliseum Arena was a blast, with good sightlines and glass low enough for you to reach down and high-five players after a goal (this was before the tragedy in Columbus, Ohio that made higher glass and safety nets mandatory).

On the other hand, as a sports venue, the Cow Palace is, and always has been, a dump. It began life as a make-work WPA project, created primarily for a single annual event, the Grand National Exposition and Rodeo.  When events requiring dim lighting were held (circuses, rock concerts, boxing, wrestling, etc.), the concrete dinosaur was tolerable.  When the lights were on, the age and scars were all-too-obvious. Even when it was the home of the Warriors in the "The City" heyday of Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, and Rick Barry, complaints were made about the draftiness of the facility.  For hockey, the Palace seats closest to the ice are right behind the players' benches and the sideboards; you have to get further away from the ice to be able to see over the glass. 

Pat Curcio made a valiant effort to make the experience tolerable, but it's hard to make the case for a team that was not only hard to see, but hard to watch. The Spiders of the single 1995-96 IHL season at the Palace boasted a coach who had won a Stanley Cup (Jean Perron, Montreal 1986), eventual Hockey Hall of Famer Rod Langway (a semi-retired player-coach), a 100-point scorer (John Purves) and the league's MVP (goalie Stephane Beauregard), as well as former Sharks David Maley and Dale Craigwell. After a slow start, they went on a streak near the end of the season to earn a winning record -- the first Bay Area ice hockey team since 1978 to pull that off -- and a playoff berth. When they lost that series, it was over for San Francisco. The Spiders had been bleeding more red than an enforcer's knuckles. The above article makes mention of the difficulty drawing fans during the week; it was during one of those weeknight games in 1995 that set a dubious local cable record, according to one report.  Less than 1,200 fans gathered at the Palace for a Spiders game broadcast live on SportsChannel, the forerunner to what we know now as Comcast SportsNet; the ratings for that game were so infinitesimal, it was estimated that there were more people in the building than watching at home. Ouch.

With the opening of the San Jose Arena and the refreshing of the Oakland Coliseum Arena, the Cow Palace has ceased to be a must-stop venue for touring shows. It's only a matter of time before the state government figures out that it's more trouble than it's worth, certainly not worth maintaining the tradition of the Grand National. Even after a ballot measure seemed to keep the "SF" in the 49ers, that fell apart as well. If it's up to the likes of Art Agnos, the Warriors won't have their dream of returning to The City. Thank goodness the Giants' new ownership had the determination and know-how to build their own mansion, a rare jewel of a sports facility, because this city doesn't know how to any more.

DaveYardShift
DaveYardShift

@aaliebert I agree that there are people with ulterior motives for wanting to demolish the Cow Palace, but I don't think a case can be made that it is anything other than a white dinosaur (elephant doesn't quite do it). 

As I mentioned in my previous comment, many events now by-pass the Palace with the addition of SJ/Compaq/HP/SAP. If someone with some foresight was in charge of it, they would built a new modern facility someplace else on the property, which is large enough to hold two buildings the Palace's size, and torn down the original.  This was a feat accomplished by the builders of two new baseball parks: Citi Field, built next to Shea Stadium (built in 1964) as the Mets were playing their last season there, and The Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, built next to Riverfront Stadium (1970).

(Aerial photos of the Cow Palace site can be seen here:  http://calcosf.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Cow-Palace-Marketing-Brochure_web.pdf)



 
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