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‘A model franchise’ – AHL president discusses Abbotsford Canucks’ arrival into league

AHL president and CEO Scott Howson believes Abbotsford has quickly become a very strong franchise
American Hockey League president and CEO Scott Howson visited Abbotsford recently. (AHL photo)

Less than three years into the club’s existence, the American Hockey League’s top boss believes the Abbotsford Canucks have already established themselves as one of the league’s model franchises.

AHL president and CEO Scott Howson recently made his first visit to Abbotsford since the Canucks very first home game back on Oct. 22, 2021.

Speaking to The News on Saturday (Dec. 2), he said the Vancouver Canucks decision to move their affiliate from Utica to Abbotsford has been a success.

“I think it’s worked for everybody,” he said. “Certainly for the league it’s one of the stronger franchises in terms of game-by-game revenue. It’s raised the bar for our league, it’s in a Canadian market and I think it works for the Canucks too.”

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The club placed 20th in the 32-team league in attendance last season and is around the same early into ‘23-‘24, but Howson pointed out that the yield from those ticket sales is higher than much of the rest of the league.

He said a big part of the reason for Abbotsford’s success is the Abbotsford Centre. He stated that the building capacity of just over 7,000 is slightly on the higher side of the AHL, but the number of suites and recent upgrades to the building have made a difference. This past offseason saw the AC receive a new scoreboard, ribbon banner, seat upgrades and other technical improvements.

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“I think this is the perfect size and the perfect building for AHL hockey,” he said. “You try and find that balance of demand and keeping the demand up, but also when you have big nights just being able to generate a lot of revenue. I believe if we get a deep playoff run here – like the conference finals – the traffic from Vancouver will be unreal. But I did a tour of the building yesterday [Friday] and it’s ideally suited for the AHL.”

When asked about the possibility of AHL all-star weekend coming to Abbotsford, Howson said the AC would have the ability to host such an event.

“If they were interested – absolutely,” he said, noting that teams have to bid in advance. “But you need the hotel space and also need to have a conference centre that can hold our hall of fame induction.”

He added that the AHL is in a good spot and has rebounded after the challenges associated with the pandemic.

“Our teams are doing an incredible job,” he said. “As a league, we were up over 20 per cent last year from our record high of ticket revenue and we’re trending really well this year. We’re up about eight per cent in raw attendance numbers and a littler higher than that in revenue numbers this season.”

Howson pointed out that for the AHL to be up so much in the pre-Thanksgiving time period with so many teams located in the United States is very positive. He said that historically some franchises see a dip in revenue in the time period between opening date and Thanksgiving due to increased competition and so many other activities, but this season has not seen that dip.

One potential new source of revenue for the league is its AHL TV streaming service. Launched in 2018, it provides fans the opportunity to watch as many games as they choose for a fee. With sports rights fees skyrocketing in recent years, Howson said it’s possible that AHL TV could end up on an established streaming service and the rights could be sold.

“We’re in the middle of our contract with our current provider,” he said, noting that the deal expires at the end of next season (‘24-‘25). “And we’ve formed a committee and got people working on it and talking to providers and we will do what’s right for the AHL.”

Howson said that the AHL TV format has been a huge hit.

“I will tell you that the AHL TV model is very, very successful for the league,” he said. “Very financially successful, but we don’t currently get a rights fee. If someone wants to come in and give us a big rights fee then that changes. We had to build this on our own and now we’re going through all the possibilities right now. Streaming is probably our biggest growth opportunity.”

He pointed out that the big Canadian sports broadcasters like TSN or Sportsnet most likely lack the capital to commit to such a deal with the AHL. Last month it was announced that the G League – the NBA equivalent to the AHL – signed a streaming deal with the Tubi app. It’s possible that a deal similar to that one could be available for the AHL in the future.

Howson was also asked about the unique set-up in the Pacific Division, which sees Abbotsford see many of the same teams frequently. The Canucks play the Calgary Wranglers 12 times and play eight games apiece against the Bakersfield Condors, Coachella Valley Firebirds, Ontario Reign, Henderson Silver Knights and Colorado Eagles. Abbotsford only plays eight games against teams outside of the Pacific Division this season.

“The schedule is a challenge,” he said. “It presents a challenge for the schedule makers, but when the Pacific Division was started they all agreed that this is what they want to do. They wanted to play each other for the most part. We try our best to work with the teams and try and satisfy what they want.”

Howson said he believes players like more variety and many also like playing in Canadian markets, but that it’s about working with teams and trying to satisfy them. He also said that the 72-game schedule is the right number of games for the league right now. Howson added that the current playoff format also allows more players to experience postseason hockey.

According to Howson, the new AHL team in Calgary has been a good addition.

“I think it’s working really well for them,” he said. “It’s a big improvement for them over Stockton. I think they’d be the first to tell you that they’re still sorting through having three teams [Wranglers, Flames and Hitmen] playing in one building and how you market the teams. But I don’t think they’d take that decision back in a second.”

He said never say never with regards to more teams in B.C. or western Canada, but it seems unlikely in the near future unless there is more NHL expansion. He noted that the Edmonton Oilers recently signed on for five more years in Bakersfield.

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As for the Abbotsford contract, the Canucks initially signed to play out of the AC for five seasons. Howson said the league doesn’t get involved with extensions unless they’re asked but he believes it makes too much sense to not extend.

“I don’t foresee there being a problem,” he said, when asked about the extension possibility. “I think this is working too well for everybody.”

The next big AHL event coming up is the all-star game, which is set for Feb. 4 in San Jose.

Ben Lypka

About the Author: Ben Lypka

I joined the Abbotsford News in 2015.
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