|(Credit: Ross Bonander/Texas Stars)
AHL president and CEO Scott Howson is no stranger to Cedar Park. He spent considerable time in and around the building during his time with the Edmonton Oilers when the OKC Barons would come to visit. Now in his new capacity as the AHL’s leader, he made his first visit to the city and found time to talk to 100 Degree Hockey on Friday night at the Tucson game.
Howson was insightful and for that reason, I’d like to present his words directly. Among the notable topics we discussed were the league’s current financials, individual team financials, the geographic setup that Texas finds itself in now and the chance to award the Calder Cup for the first time in three years this summer.
Here is 100 Degree Hockey’s exclusive interview with AHL President Scott Howson:
Stephen Meserve, 100 Degree Hockey: Welcome back to Texas, Scott. This is your first visit to Texas as the president of the AHL. What are your impressions of the team and city in that new lens?
Scott Howson: Well, shocking when I walked out of the airport and got into the weather! I’m told it was 75 here yesterday, and when I walked into the cold, I felt like I was back in Springfield, [Massachusetts]. You know, this is a very strong franchise, and it's good for me to try to do as many site visits as I can and just to reacquaint myself with the league. I was in a lot of these buildings as a scout, but not from this vantage point. And, you know, the energy of the crowd tonight, and it's probably going to be a better crowd tomorrow night, [Texas Stars President Michael Delay] tells me. It's a very strong franchise.
Meserve: When you were here with the Oilers farm team, Texas had the Barons, San Antonio Rampage, and Houston Aeros. Texas is on an island right now geographically. As administrator of the entire League's health, how do you judge where Texas is in terms of the geography?
Howson: Well, we have teams like Texas. We have Charlotte; we have Manitoba. Now we have Abbotsford. Tucson is a bit of an island too in their division. This is just a fact of life in the AHL. It makes it harder for those teams. Travel becomes more burdensome both from a physical point of view and an expense point of view. Those are things we're always looking at, but this is just a fact of life in the AHL.
Meserve: Overall, across the league, all 32 teams soon, what's the health of things financially coming out of COVID? Is there a reemergence of people wanting to invest in the league overall as a sponsorship opportunity or just as an entertainment opportunity?
Howson: Well, I can tell you that if you compare our attendance or our paid revenue from last full year to this year, we're down about 12 to 15%, which isn't abnormal for any sport right now. I'm quite proud of the fact that we're there. We're going to cut that deficit down in the last two months of the season because we're trending right out of COVID. The thing that's really hurt our teams is the Group Sales. We're a ticket-driven business and a large part of our tickets are season tickets and then groups. Groups have been down more than that. I'm still very bullish on where we're gonna go. I don't think we're gonna get all the way back there this year, but we'll get back next year. We are certainly trending to.
Meserve: One of the challenges that Texas has had is that corporate sponsorships kind of dried up last year. Nobody really knew what was going on with COVID, and there wasn't a sales staff here to talk to people because everybody was furloughed. Those relationships kind of petered out, unfortunately. Is that the case across the league? How are corporate sponsorships generally trending?
Howson: Yeah, we're clawing back the same way they are here. I talked to [Michael Delay] about what he's doing in sponsorships, and they're down. But I don't think it's anything that's a long-term trend. I think sports are very attractive to sponsors. Live sports are very attractive to sponsors, and I think we're gonna get back to where we were before.
Meserve: Unfortunately, you’ve had to cancel the All-Star game in Laval these past two years. I think fans here would love to see an All-Star game here in Cedar Park. From the league’s perspective, what makes a city an attractive destination for an All-Star game?
Howson: Well, the cities themselves get interested in it, and they put a bid in. With Laval, we had to cancel twice. At least the year before, we canceled well before the summer. This time we went into January, and they were completely shut down. I'm certainly excited about going back there next year. It's really just that the city gets interested in it, puts a bid in and then works with our staff to make sure the numbers work for both sides. Then we go from there. We have lots of interest. We've got a very interested party for 2024. I talked to the people in Coachella Valley yesterday, and they told me they want to bid on it. So it's really a team driven thing, and then they work with us.
Meserve: Speaking of the folks on the west coast there, the harmonization of the schedule has to feel good as a milestone for the league.
Howson: Well, there's a lot of compromising going on, and a lot of teams sacrificed their own selfish interests for the good of the league, which I was very proud of. It was really a combination of two things. It was getting the teams to all agree on the number of games and then increasing the number of teams in the playoffs. Those two things went hand-in-hand. Once we got sort of the Pacific Division to think about maybe it'd be good to go to 72, then there were some teams that compromised on the other side, too. There were a lot of teams that wanted to play 76. I think it just wasn't fair to have some teams only play 68 and some teams 76. I think it was confusing, and I didn’t think it was a great look for our league.
Meserve: You obviously do have to balance. For the teams who are independent, ticket revenues are everything. Chicago or Hershey are the canonical examples. They want all the games they can get.
Howson: Lehigh Valley or Cleveland, the same way. Each game [we eliminate], they would turn away some revenue. Everybody came together, and I was very proud of our league.
Meserve: Ending on a good note here, let’s talk about the playoffs. For the first time since 2019, you’re going to be awarding the Calder Cup, and you’ll be handing it over for the first time as AHL president.
Howson: When we were deciding last year that we were going to play, which I was very grateful we got a chance to play, we all knew even at the beginning that the Calder Cup was a long shot. In talking to some of the players, they said that this is why we play. We play to win the Calder Cup. [They asked,] ‘Is there any way we can make it work’? But there was just no way it would work last year. That's a long way of saying that this is really exciting for me, for the players and for the teams to have something on the line. It's been two long years, and you can never take anything for granted. COVID has raised its head at different times, but it looks like we're trending the right way. And that's really exciting for me.