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Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2006 | Perched atop a plush bar stool under the dim lights of a sports bar on Midway Drive, Rich Habeeb sits, drinks and laments.
Hockey jerseys hang from the ceiling. The walls are adorned with sports memorabilia. And Habeeb, who is clad in shorts and a t-shirt that says “Old Guys Rule,” is taking back another pitcher of suds. The setting is almost too perfect for a discussion about his memories of the now-defunct San Diego Gulls hockey team.
For more than two hours, Habeeb chatted, happy to find someone with whom to share his memories of the team. He talked about his pre-game ritual of knocking back a few beers while playing roller hockey on North Island. He reminisced about his ex-girlfriend, Barbarella, who used to attend the games with him. He yelled his seat number into the tape recorder, “Lower level 2, Row 2, Seat 14.” And he reveled in the Gulls 2003 Taylor Cup victory when his friend snuck a bottle of champagne (and cups) into the Sports Arena to cap off the win.
But when asked about the San Diego Gulls folding a little more than two months ago, he turned quiet and somber.
“It was a very big deal,” he said, fixed on a point far beyond the bar wall in front of him.
The Gulls’ shutdown June 30 was a big deal for many San Diegans. Last season they averaged more than 5,800 fans per game, the third highest attendance rate in the East Coast Hockey League. They were the only hockey game in town. They died hard and abruptly.
The feeling of losing a semi-pro sports team wasn’t a new one for San Diego sports fans. Since 2003, the city has lost its women’s soccer team, the Spirit; its arena football team, the Riptide; and its world-class indoor soccer team, the Sockers.
“Minor league sports are a tough sell,” said Ernie Hahn, general manager of the ipayOne Center, which played home to the Gulls, Riptide and the Sockers. “That’s about the easiest way you can put it.”
Industry experts say that the departure of these teams represents a blow to the community. Minor league sports provide an affordable, fun, family event that gets kids and parents alike away from TV and video games for a night. And the team’s players serve as role models to young athletes across the county.
But San Diego’s team owners agree that owning semi-pro sports teams is not a lucrative endeavor. Hahn declined to say how much money the Gulls lost every year, although he said he was in the red for five years straight. David Altamore, former owner of the Sockers, said that his team lost about $500,000 a year for four years.
Other teams in town are still trying to push their product, but to little or no avail. Of the remaining teams, the women’s professional football team, the SoCal Scorpions, draws the largest crowd. The baseball team, the San Diego Surf Dawgs, trail behind and are down from last year’s peak. That’s when Major League Baseball-legend Rickey Henderson played for the team.
Neither franchise is profitable, their officials say, but they are still in their infancy in terms of semi-pro sports and are making strides toward becoming profitable, or at least breaking even.
San Diego’s other minor league sports team, the San Diego Siege of the National Women’s Basketball League, could dissolve in the coming months. Patrick Alexander, the owner of the team and the league, said that after nine years of operation, the league might fold before the coming season.
Seth Slaven, president of Long Beach’s minor league hockey team, the Ice Dogs, compares the recent exodus of San Diego’s semi-pro sports teams to the loss of the city’s NBA squad to Los Angeles in 1984.
He calls it “The Clippers Syndrome.”
San Diego sports team owners agree that there is too much to do in San Diego to make minor-league sports appealing every night of the week. Along with the difficulty of getting fans through the door, the operating costs in San Diego are high.
Hahn said that in the last few years of the Gulls’ existence, housing the players became increasingly expensive, as did travel and overhead costs. Hahn said that he will save about $200,000 on electricity and water without having to keep the Gulls’ home ice cold.
Hahn and a number of industry insiders say that many team owners lose money year after year, but continue to pump finances into their operations because they are emotionally attached to the team or because they receive good promotion for their other businesses by owning the team.
“I don’t know that a team necessarily has to make a profit,” to play in San Diego, said Altamore, the Sockers’ former owner. “If it was even at a point where I could break even, I would still do it.
“But losing $500,000 per year, I can’t take that kind of loss.”
A few teams in San Diego are still kicking these days. The San Diego Surf Dawgs, who just finished their second season, draw about 1,200 fans per game, despite a losing season this year. The SoCal Scorpions draw about 2,000 fans per game, up from about 400 when the team formed four years ago.
The teams aren’t yet profitable. To make the loss margins as low as possible, teams are attempting to keep costs low. The Scorpions pay for all of their players’ travel expenses. Players are paid $1 a year in order to be considered professionals. The Surf Dawgs play for a maximum of $2,500 per month. Most of them are vying for positions in a better league.
The San Diego Riptide folded a little less then a year ago. A press release on team’s website claims that they plan to come back in 2007, stronger than ever.
Hahn, however, said he does not expect the team to return, and has not been contacted about hosting the team again at the ipayOne Center. John Kolek, director of Cox Arena, said that he met with representatives from the team more than six months ago, but has not had contact with the team since then.
Jon Runyan, owner of the Riptide and professional football player with the Philadelphia Eagles, could not be reached for comment.
But for some, it’s not even about the sports.
Karol Jennings’ favorite memory of her internship with the San Diego Gulls didn’t take place on the ice. It was at an East County elementary school.
Goalie Trevor Koenig visited the school to teach the kids about hockey. He gave out prizes and dressed some kids up in hockey gear to show them all the equipment they had to wear. Jennings’ said she most enjoyed the sense of community.
“I don’t even like hockey,” she said.
Minor league sports are rich in tradition and the players are oftentimes heavily involved in the community. At Kristy’s MVP Sports Bar, where Habeeb lamented the loss of the Gulls, one of the bartenders is a former player.
“He doesn’t like to talk about it,” one of the hostesses says over the phone, “he’s very modest.”
The Gulls used to do Sunday night promotions, allowing kids to rent ice skates and skate with the Gulls after the game. Other nights, the players would go out drinking with the fans at local watering holes.
Team owners say that the best way to stay alive in minor league sports is to embrace this sense of community and to market the games as more than just a sporting event.
“We’re not competing against the Kings and the Ducks,” said Eric Lindquist, a spokesman for the Long Beach Ice Dogs. “We’re competing against Chuck E. Cheese and the movie theatres.”
Such is the sentiment of semi-pro sports owners. They agree that to successfully market a franchise, it has to be more than a sport – it has to be an entire evening of entertainment.
“It’s like going out to the carnival for the night and there just happens to be baseball at the same time,” said Amit Patel, president of the Golden Baseball League. “It’s an affordable night out instead of the kids playing Xbox and the parents watching TV.”
To bring the carnival feeling to the games, semi-pro sports teams frequently host promotional giveaway nights. Habeeb is quick to disclose his favorite promo. (“Long sleeve t-shirt night,” he says without hesitation.)
“I’ve got a bunch of extra shirts in the back of my truck if you want some,” he said.
The Long Beach Ice Dogs scheduled a promo night in January that should wrangle in a few San Diego Gulls fans.
Jan. 27, fans can drive up to Long Beach for “Retro Gulls Night.” The Ice Dogs will wear old San Diego Gulls jerseys and the night will be “very San Diego themed,” said Seth Slaven, team president.
“We’re trying to reach out to Gulls fans that are without a team at this point,” he said. “And we’re really not that far away.”