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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