The San Francisco Bulls have a lot to be excited about as they wind up their first season. They have built successful partnerships in the Bay Area. They are preparing prospects for their NHL affiliate, the San Jose Sharks, and other teams. Not only will they compete in the playoffs (having clinched Tuesday when Bakersfield lost to Las Vegas), but they have something they didn’t have to start this season: information.
Bulls CEO Angela Batinovich explained that the team’s first season gave them a wealth of data to work with this summer. It makes the end of the season almost as exciting as being in the playoffs:
Our whole staff is really excited to close out the season. We have four or five months in the off-season, we are going to grind every number we have, get all the fan feedback we have, we have surveys, we have so much information we just have to sit and actually figure out what to do with it.
The team launched the season with an impressive marketing campaign. Their video ads are memorable and entertaining, their billboards and radio spots let San Franciscans know they were in town. Some of their video work has gone viral through the hockey community. Their merchandise sold extremely well.
Some of the advertising worked, some of it didn’t. There were many unknowns coming into this first season. Batinovich described that one challenge they faced was not knowing which days of the week San Franciscans would be inclined to attend hockey games:
Wednesdays are our worst nights… can’t draw on a Wednesday. We are required by the league to have weekday games…
We didn’t know which night was going to be big here. Everyone assumed Saturday night, but for a long time our Fridays were bigger than our Saturdays… Our Sundays are doing really well, we didn’t [expect] half the people [that] we’ve been getting. Sundays are a big day for us…. but we didn’t know that this year.
The good news is we now have a year of knowledge. That was an asset we didn’t have this year. We know the things that worked, we know the things that didn’t work… Next year should be a lot more strategic.
The Bulls’ reported average attendance is 4,177. If you cut out the home opener and the game played at HP Pavilion, the average attendance per game sits at just over 3,750. Their break even target is about 3,500. The ECHL average is 4,681, with team averages ranging from 7,553 to 2,495.
The team has already sold between two and three hundred full-season equivalents for next season. A full-season equivalent is a full season ticket or ticket packages that combine to make an equivalent. Early renewal deals end March 29. Over the course of this season they sold about 1,500 such. Batinovich pointed out that the type of tickets sold is also important:
All the glass is renewed, people are excited about new glass seats, people are upgrading.
New glass seats? Yes, the Bulls will be adding 24 seats along the glass, as one of several upgrades. “We’re going to try some new things… the beer garden’s going to go right here,” Batinovich said, pointing to the raised seats behind the player benches:
All those risers of seats are going to go away. We sold a bunch of these seats, and everyone moved over there, [the opposite side of the ice] because the sight line is terrible behind the bench. When the players stand you can’t see anything. All the risers will come out, and we’re going to drop it down. Hopefully– Giorgi Brothers Furniture has been a great partner– they want to make a little lounge … down there too.
That will certainly improve game photos taken on that side of the rink, as well as make more room in the beer garden. The shape of the Cow Palace leaves a lot of space between the permanent seats and the sides of the rink. One might not have guessed that standing room would be so popular, but the beer garden has been consistently populated during Bulls’ games. In addition, the Bulls will put in more gathering spots, to accommodate parties at ice level and near-ice level.
What expectations do the owners have for this venture? Batinovich explained that the group is prepared to be patient:
The ownership group is not worried about necessarily making money on an operating basis every a year. They are more worried about building a franchise, building a culture, building a brand. Most of us realize it’s going to take a few years to do that. You can’t just come in, throw a fancy scoreboard up and make money every year. It just doesn’t work that way.
Part of building a culture and a brand is putting down roots in the community. The Bulls established several partnerships early on, well before they played their first game. Among these partnerships is one with Kristi Yamaguchi’s Always Dream Foundation. Yamaguchi explained the interests that the team and her organization share:
It’s been exciting. When we first heard that a team was coming here to San Francisco, thought it was great, to bring the sport to other regions of the Bay Area. Obviously hockey is close [to] our family. Having the Always Dream Foundation partner with the Bulls… they wanted to put some roots in the community. Knowing that our foundation is based here in the Bay Area, it was one way to do that. Our organization supports early childhood literacy. We launched a few different reading programs, a couple here in SF, in Oakland and San Jose. We’re looking to expand nationwide. It’s a foundation for any child, not only in school but for success in life.
The team is building a position for itself in the larger hockey community as well. They have made the Cow Palace ice available for pick up hockey, organized a mite jamboree, and hosted college hockey events. The Bulls were also the first ECHL team to join the You Can Play movement.
It is worth noting that this is the first season that the San Jose Sharks sent skaters to the ECHL. While they were affiliated with the Stockton Thunder, the Sharks shared the affiliation with the Edmonton Oilers. One could surmise that this joint arrangement diluted San Jose’s input on the development process, and probably left less room on the roster. For whatever reason, the Sharks only sent goaltenders to Stockton. Over the course of this season, they sent five skaters and two goaltenders to play for the Bulls. There are currently two skaters and one goalie on the Bulls’ roster who are San Jose Sharks or Worcester Sharks property. It is obvious that the Sharks are ready to make use of their new affiliate.
Two Bulls’ players were called up to the AHL on Wednesday. Peter Sivak, loaned to the Worcester Sharks, has many years of experience as a professional, but this is his first year playing in North America. Dean Ouellet, loaned to the Hamilton Bulldogs, was San Francisco’s representative at the ECHL All Star Game. Both have consistently led the Bulls in scoring, both will be making their AHL debut.
This week, Daniil Tarasov, currently playing in Worcester, signed an entry level contract starting next season with the San Jose Sharks. Tarasov played 17 games with the Bulls before being reassigned to the AHL team. Another player, one who is not Sharks property, is also poised to make a leap to the next level. Kris Belan has been on a PTO with the Manchester Monarchs since February 27, and has played seven games. In an interview with The Pink Puck, Belan credited Bulls Head Coach Pat Curcio with his readiness to play professional hockey:
… that’s what you need out of a coach, a coach that believes in you and lets you play your game. He constantly stresses… finish your hits, block shots, keep it simple and I think that’s what’s helped me get to where I am right now.
Location is one of the advantages to the Sharks of having an ECHL team, but the Bulls themselves are also doing a good job to develop players. At last Sunday’s game to benefit the Always Dream Foundation, Bret Hedican explained:
The Bulls … making the playoffs their very first year, I think that’s a great accomplishment. It says a lot about what they’re trying to do here which is run a good program, starting with the top, the management, working their way down to the coaches and the players and they’re buying in…
To see [the players in] close proximity, anybody from management from the San Jose Sharks can [come] over here to see these players, to see them developing … it’s good to have them close by.
Hedican also commended the team for expanding access to hockey for fans and kids:
Where I grew up in Minnesota, that’s all there is, is hockey, you can see hockey everywhere. In California, if you can’t afford to go to San Jose Sharks games, this is an opportunity to see good hockey, great hockey. It’s not the NHL yet but they’re aspiring to be in the NHL. So to have that opportunity for kids to come watch it and plant the seed… you never know.
“One of these little kids might be the next Wayne Gretzky, you never know,” he concluded, only half joking.