An Alaskan hockey team skates toward success

A failing hockey franchise gets a jolt of small-biz know-how.

By Brandi Stewart, FSB Magazine

(FSB Magazine) -- While minor-league baseball has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in recent years, farm-club hockey has sunk into the doldrums. The West Coast Hockey League, a group of seven minor-league teams struggling to contain workers' comp costs and put enough teams on ice to maintain a competitive environment, ceased operation in 2002 and was forced to merge into the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL).

Today less than half of the 27 teams in the ECHL make a profit. Few team owners break out of the old formula for running a franchise: Rent a rink, reel in some local sponsors, advertise the games in the local paper, and hope for the best.

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From left: co-owner Rod Udd, all-star Aces forward Julian Talbot, forward Jeff Smith and co-owner Steve Agni
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Eight entrepreneurs from Anchorage had a better idea. They banded together to save the Anchorage Aces, a bankrupt West Coast Hockey League franchise. To breathe life back into the moribund team, the new owners used their other businesses to boost the Aces and vice versa.

"As small-business owners, we use it as a marketing tool," says owner Al Haynes, 52, whose Subway franchises gave away free tickets during the 2002 - 03 season to increase game attendance. "We promote the Aces team, which promotes us." Adds fellow owner Terry Parks, 57, an Xpress Lube owner: "We saw it as a way to give back to the community and get a higher profile to help our other businesses."

So far the results have been impressive. After losing a total of $800,000 in its first two years under new ownership, the team became profitable, and by 2006 it earned $400,000 on sales of $4.8 million, with sales up 33 percent over the previous year. As FSB went to press, the Aces had skated to first place in the ECHL and were selling at least 80 percent of their seats each game (up from about 29 percent when the new owners took over).

Rather than try to go it alone, Parks and his initial partners - Steve Adams, 51, a Subway franchisee, and lawyer Dan Coffey, 60 - offered stakes in the Aces to five other Anchorage businessmen. Each new owner brought distinct skills to the table. Coffey guided the buyers through the snares of bankruptcy court. Jeff Van Abel, 59, a lawyer who had helped Parks build his Xpress Lube chain, brought valuable legal and business experience.

Steve Agni, 53, generated attendance by tapping into a bevy of young hockey fans from his private skating rinks. As the owner of the Anchorage Chrysler Dodge dealership, Rod Udd, 58, had the ad budget to ensure that the team would have a high-profile corporate sponsor. And former Alaska state senator Jerry Mackie, 45, brought political connections and marketing skills through his involvement in Northwest Strategies, an advertising and public relations firm he owns. Though Parks serves as managing partner, all eight co-owners are actively involved in the business.

The new owners paid $1 million for the team (half of it in cash), as well as money to cover new equipment and the first season's operating costs. Over the next two years they took out a $750,000 bank loan and contributed an additional $750,000 of their cash to keep the franchise steady.

While the partners were experienced businessmen, they knew little about hockey. Only two had played the sport at an amateur level, and Parks could barely skate. But like most successful entrepreneurs, they understood their limitations. Parks hired Davis Payne, 36, a former pro hockey player, who coaches the team and also oversees recruitment, equipment, and physical therapy. That division of labor allowed the owners to concentrate on rebuilding the team's image among sponsors and fans.

Early on, the new owners decided to make the Aces a statewide franchise to boost its appeal to sponsors and fans across Alaska. During Parks' first year as managing partner, the Aces sold only 46 percent of their advertising spots and filled less than 29 percent of the seats in Sullivan Arena, the team's home stadium.

But in 2003 the owners changed the name of the team from the Anchorage Aces to the Alaska Aces (alaskaaces.com). The new image caught the attention of statewide sponsors such as the First National Bank Alaska, which began buying advertising space in 2003, and cable provider GCI, which increased its advertising by 400 percent after the team was resurrected. Sponsor revenues reached $1.4 million in 2006, up 100 percent since the new owners took over the team. With the Aces' on-ice success attracting sold-out crowds, ad banners in Sullivan Arena are now seen by the largest indoor audience in the state.

Few minor-league franchises are willing to make the large investment required to televise their games. But Parks last year spent $130,000 to air the Aces' away playoff games live on the GCI cable network. The owners brought the Aces to fans in living rooms and sports bars throughout the state as the team won the 2006 Kelly Cup in Duluth, Ga.

"All the clubs in town were packed [on game nights]," Parks recalled. "Some of our sponsors' offices were even full of people watching the game. It made a big difference to our fans, so that was $130,000 invested wisely." If the Aces make the playoffs this year, Parks plans to televise the games again starting in April.

The team's newfound popularity has helped several of the owners with their businesses. Last year sales of Subway meal deals jumped 50 percent after Adams and Haynes's 24 stores offered two-for-one Aces home-game ticket coupons with each purchase. (The coupons also helped sell 1,200 Aces tickets.)

When the Aces reached the playoffs in 2005, Parks advertised an Xpress Lube deal that offered one free and one discounted Aces home-game ticket to every customer who came in for an oil change. Parks gave away 450 comp tickets and saw his lube business increase by about eight cars a day during the first round of the playoffs. And some owners have even brought their products directly to the fans. Udd hauled six new Dodge cars and pickups into the arena during the 2006 playoffs, boosting sales of new vehicles that weekend by 38 percent.

With the first-place Aces skating circles around the competition, 2007 has been a good year so far. Although the franchise has been profitable since 2004, Parks says the eight partners won't see a return on their investment until 2008, when he plans to retire the last of the team's debt. That's okay, though, because in the meantime the Alaska Aces are helping their owners sell sandwiches, lube jobs and pickup trucks. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.