Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

AHL still a winning business proposition -- touch wood

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Business seems to be bad everywhere, from cars to crops and banks to bakeries.

The sports world isn't untouched. Several major leagues have trimmed staff. Fans and companies of all variety are re-evaluating their participation.

In hockey, two teams in the ECHL have folded during the current season and several fires are burning in the NHL.

Dave Andrews is very mindful that the economy is contracting in most corners but the AHL president and CEO taps the wood boardroom table in his 24th-floor office and declares his league is in good shape to traverse the choppy waters.

"We are healthier than we've been, as far as franchises at risk, than maybe any year since I started as president 15 years ago," Andrews said during an interview with the Free Press during the Manitoba Moose's recent 10-game road trip. "It's odd, considering the state of the economy but our business is pretty healthy and over the last period of years, we have strengthened our business and our ownership in cities we're in.

"We're at a point now where we have two legitimate groups and cities, actually three, who would like to buy a franchise in our league and I can't find them anyone to sell. That is a very uncommon circumstance for us."

More details there in a moment, but Andrews pointed out that if one of his franchise's was in trouble, the league itself wouldn't likely keep it afloat.

"It wouldn't be our priority," he said. "Our board's priority would be to task me to find new ownership. Generally there are other solutions. As long as your franchises have a decent value, which ours do, the likelihood of someone walking away from their business is pretty slim.

"Touch wood -- in the 22 years I've been around (15 as president), we haven't lost a franchise in mid-stream. It's not to say every market is successful or making a profit, because they're not all making a profit but I think for the most part, we're in a growth mode in most of our cities."

The league is indeed looking to expand its footprint for 2009-10 to a full 30 teams. (Of course, it's never just so simple in the AHL as adding one team, given that it's almost certain there will be one relocation, Philadelphia, and there are several other affiliation issues brewing as usual.) Building, tickets, sponsorships -- it has Dallas's new affiliate ready to go in Austin, Texas, except for one not-so-minor detail.

As Andrews said, he can't find them a franchise.

Thirty exist but the owners of today's dormant one, the Edmonton Oilers (who are just affiliated in Springfield), aren't willing sellers.

Andrews calls it a "front-burner" issue to come up with a solution for Austin, but doesn't sound like he's keen on suggesting to his owners that they just expand by one, effectively just creating a franchise to sell to the Stars.

"They (Dallas) would like it to be (that easy) but I don't believe the league would like it to be," Andrews said. "It may be one thing we look at but the reason I'd suggest we won't is that it will create a 31st franchise and now you'd have more franchises than you have NHL player supply for.

"It's not that you couldn't operate that way, but it does change the market for affiliation agreements and if you're changing it to the disadvantage of our league, it's probably not very smart."

Other location issues pending are where the (Philadelphia) Phantoms will land once the Spectrum is demolished this summer -- the Pittsburgh-based Brooks Group has bought the team and wants to move it to a yet-to-be-built arena in Allentown, Pa. -- and what the Calgary Flames will do in Quad City.

The Flames have had discussions with a group in Abbottsford, B.C., and Andrews said those talks have been serious.

"A single flag in the ground that far away from the core of our league is going to be challenging to our board to make that sort of leap," Andrews said. "The potential for a cluster of teams on the West Coast, if we saw the potential for more teams in the near to mid-term (future), that might be a more compelling argument.

"But how we arrive at a cluster of teams in the west with buyers but no sellers and a cluster of teams in the mid-west and the east that are pretty happy where they are, it'll be a difficult decision for our board if it comes to us at all. Calgary is taking a hard look at it, though."

The look will include complete travel subsidies, Andrews said, or it won't even get to first base.

"But still, there will be a decision to be made in a strategic sense whether it makes sense for us to be that far west," he added. "Our role now is (just) to manage the process in order to bring things to our board for a decision."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2009 C3

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