The Albany Devils aren’t the first — merely the latest.
For more than a quarter century, a succession of professional sports franchises — basketball, baseball, soccer, lacrosse and arena football — have come and gone from the Albany area.
When the Devils finish their American Hockey League season sometime in the spring, we’ll be saying goodbye to yet another. They are relocating to Binghamton, a move announced Jan. 31.
Lack of attendance, which leads to lack of sustained revenue, is almost always cited as the primary reason why pro sports teams leave town. The Devils, who rank last in the 30-team AHL in average fans per home game, are no different.
It raises the question: Can Albany, a city twice the size of Binghamton, sustain a sports franchise at any level?
“In any market in the country, whether it’s the Chicago Bears or Yankees or Mets or Red Sox, those fans are passionate,” said Bob Belber, general manager of Times Union Center, where the Devils play home games. “They go to almost every game.
“That’s the one thing that maybe we didn’t have in this market as much as we should have had. That passionate fan that has to be at every game. We’ve got probably about a thousand of them. They’re wonderful, great people. There just aren’t enough of them.”
Attendance hasn’t been the only issue for teams. Professional rosters are much more transient than those of a college team, which allows fans more familiarity with the players. Pro teams also don’t have the built-in alumni bases that college athletics inherit.
“The biggest challenge in reality is the size of the building,” said Garen Szablewski, CEO of the AHL’s Albany River Rats (1993-2010), who preceded the Devils at the downtown arena. “It just has too many seats to fill up every night. When you’re involved with such a long season, every single night is a tough sell.”
“The problem we had at Heritage Park was amenities,” said Charlie Voelker, general manager of the independent-league baseball Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs (1995-2002). “We were there in a time when amenities were starting to become more popular in stadiums. The (New York)-Penn League stadiums were nicer. There were a lot more options for people, and that’s what people were starting to gravitate to.”
Each team and sport faces its own challenges, but one franchise that has bucked the trend is the Tri-City ValleyCats, a New York-Penn League team that christened Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy in 2002.
The ValleyCats have experienced a year-over-year increase in attendance in all but two of their 15 seasons.
“We were atypical,” said Rick Murphy, CEO of the ValleyCats. “Usually you start out where your first five years are your best attendance-wise. It didn’t happen for us. We basically grew into the marketplace.”
With a season-ticket base of less than 1,000, the ValleyCats’ 11 full-time staff members work feverishly during the off-season to fill the 4,500-seat facility.
“Having 38 home games in generally the best-weather months — June, July and August — lends itself to a model that has a high probability of being successful,” Murphy said. “Our mission statement is ‘to develop fans for life by creating an experience that is affordable, fun and entertaining while in a safe and clean environment.’ We’ve tried to create an affordable, memorable experience when they come to The Joe.”
Tri-City averaged 4,281 last season, or 95 percent of capacity.
But what works for some sports doesn’t work for others.
Since they arrived in 2010, the Devils have tried as hard as any front-office staff to expand pro hockey’s fan base. The efforts haven’t improved the per-game average from what the Rats drew.
Chris Ciceri, the Devils’ CEO the previous six years, returned to Albany in midseason in his role as special adviser to the New Jersey Devils. He and his staff have pushed group sales, which was the impetus to the Rats averaging 6,101 in 1995-96, but the overall numbers have remained stagnant.
“In the ’16-’17 season,” Ciceri said, “we retained 73 percent of our season-ticket holders from the prior year. What happened to that 27 percent? Some have moved, some don’t have interest, some, unfortunately, passed away. The sales staff goes out and works hard in replenishing that number. Every year, you never have 100 percent of the renewals. Our job is to attract and retain these customers.”
That has been a struggle since the Devils arrived in 2010 to replace the River Rats, who relocated to Charlotte, N.C. If the Devils’ current per-game average of 2,911 fans doesn’t improve over the final nine home games, it will be the lowest number in the city’s 24-year AHL history.
“Don’t take that as a negative toward the Devils,” Belber said. “They tried very hard to sell tickets.”
Hockey fans long for the heyday of the mid-1990s, when the Rats were in the top 10 of AHL attendance (albeit in a much smaller league) for their first season. They have been in the bottom 25 percent each of the past 18 seasons.
“One of the challenges that we were up against, and even more so now, is all the availability of the electronic media,” Szablewski said. “It’s so easy to sit at home and watch a game on TV, whether it’s a cable broadcast game or internet broadcast game. Even the die-hard fans at times find it easier to get their sports fix at home than it is to brave the weather and come out and pay the money to sit down at the arena.”
Here yesterday, gone today
Professional sports franchises that have left the Albany area since 1990:
2010 Albany River Rats (American Hockey League) – arrived 1993
2009 Albany Conquest/Firebirds (arenafootball2) – arrived 2002 Albany Patroons (Continental Basketball Association) – arrived 2005
2007 Albany Patroons (U.S. Basketball League) – arrived 2005
2003 Albany Attack (National Lacrosse League) – arrived 2000
2002 Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs (Northeast/Northern League baseball) – arrived 1995
2000 Albany Firebirds (Arena Football League) – arrived 1990
1999 Albany Alleycats (United Soccer League) – arrived 1995
1994 Albany-Colonie A’s/Yankees (Eastern League Class AA baseball) – arrived 1983
1993 Albany Patroons/Capital Region Pontiacs (Continental Basketball Association) – arrived 1982 Capital District Islanders (American Hockey League) – arrived 1990
1991 Albany Choppers (International Hockey League) – arrived 1990 New York Kick (National Professional Soccer League) – arrived 1989
“We find it now where the options are no longer going someplace,” said Voelker, who is associate athletic director at the University at Albany. “People have so many different options on their phones, their smart devices, their televisions, you’re competing for the entertainment dollar. It’s difficult.”
Despite the checkered history of pro sports franchise in the region, Belber, who began running the arena in 1994, is looking for more.
He remembers fondly the Albany Firebirds (1990-2000), who over their 11 seasons in the Arena Football League averaged 11,222 per game, 82 percent of capacity. The Firebirds bolted for Indianapolis because of escalating player salaries, according to Belber, who has had discussions with the AFL about getting a team for 2018.
Belber also has talked with the National Lacrosse League, which had a four-year run here beginning in 1999. The Albany Attack averaged 4,300.
“Arena football would make sense,” Belber said. “We would love to see a National Lacrosse League team come in, and there is some dialogue going on there. All of these things are just things that we’re working on. I don’t want to make it sound like they’re absolutely going to happen.”
Regardless of whether the arena has an anchor tenant other than Siena College basketball, Belber said the 38 dates previously occupied by the Devils won’t go to waste.
“We are filling up a lot of dates with concerts and family shows,” he said. “We’ve got a bull-riding event coming in, and various other good pieces of programming that are filling up dates. I’m confident that the number of dates that we’re going to present on an annual basis will be very close to the same number of events that we’ve had in the past. We just won’t have hockey.”
For fans who enjoyed 24 years of AHL hockey, it will be sad, but hardly unprecedented. The good ol’ days of the 1990s, when the Rats lifted the curtains that cover the upper deck to accommodate five-figure crowds, will become a memory.
“To have the curtains up and everything, that was so exciting,” Ciceri said. “I just wish we had more of them.”
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