Saturday, January 14, 2012

Without the Coliseum: Options

As soon as the news broke this week that the Indiana State Fairgrounds is shutting down the Pepsi Coliseum for two years to pour $3.8 million into renovations (primarily in the interior), it took half a second for my brain (and likely, the one of every other hockey fan in Indianapolis) to ask the question "so, what about the Ice?"

The Coliseum has been the primary ice rink in the city since 1939 -- although it has served alongside Market Square Arena from 1974-99 and Conseco/Bankers Life Fieldhouse ever since. All eight Indianapolis championship teams have called it home. While it has gone through some cosmetic improvements -- especially with regards to the concourses -- the seating bowl hasn't changed much since the paint dried while the Capitals played their first game in front of a packed house of curious onlookers.

It will certainly be a centerpiece of a new era of hockey in the city. One of Indianapolis' primary difficulties has been the lack of a strong secondary arena to Bankers Life Fieldhouse downtown. Former Indianapolis Ice owner Gary Pedigo spoke of building a new rink that would be shared with IUPUI and the Indianapolis Tennis Center and have a retractable roof, but nothing came of it -- Pedigo sold the Ice to Horn Chen, IUPUI still plays in its tiny on-campus gymnasium that it has used since it was an NAIA program, and the Indianapolis Tennis Center has been dismantled. Meanwhile, there's a gigantic hole in downtown where that perfect secondary arena -- MSA -- once stood.

The Coliseum, therefore, has served as that secondary arena, but it is one of the oldest active hockey rinks in the country, and will likely be a showpiece post-renovation.

But still, there's the big unanswered question: Where are the Ice going to play?

Here are some options -- and note, this is my educated opinion and not based on any conversations with any team officials, so it is for discussion purposes only. (more below the jump)

Bankers Life Fieldhouse
The home of the Indiana Pacers, Bankers Life Fieldhouse has hosted at least one (and up to six) Ice game per year since it opened in 1999. This year, it will host three Ice games. Being an NBA arena, it's also an NHL-caliber rink. The Ice obviously have a history there, but it has its drawbacks.
Pros: Downtown location, which provides greater ease of access for fans, extra visibility, likelihood of better/increased media coverage, and the association with the Fieldhouse gives the team more visibility and appeal in a local sports scene that is growing ever more crowded. Also, it's an NHL-caliber building, which certainly would help recruiting. There is nothing like the Fieldhouse in the USHL or -- outside of Chicago -- in any USHL market.
Cons: Playing downtown -- whether MSA or the Fieldhouse -- has always brought with it two problems. One is cost -- both in renting the building (which is owned by the city, but the Pacers have much control over the revenue streams) and in cost to fans. Parking, concessions, et al, are significantly more expensive downtown than at the Fairgrounds. The other is in dates. Whether minor pro or junior hockey, teams need to have prime dates to draw fans. That was the main factor in the IHL Ice moving out of Market Square Arena in 1998. Note that the Ice teams have played nearly all of their games on weekends, in both the CHL and USHL, over the last decade. At the Fieldhouse, the Pacers get first crack at the prime dates. Then, throw in competition from Big Ten tournaments, IHSAA wrestling and basketball State Finals, international events such as swimming meets, NCAA events, concerts, the circus, the Globetrotters and other events and finding good dates becomes difficult. The difference in attendance between a Tuesday and a Saturday game is significant, and that can make or break the cost.
Analysis: The Fieldhouse was more than willing to work with the Indiana State Fair when the grandstand stage collapsed this summer, and it is possible that it would cut a deal with the Ice to allow the team to remain using the facility. That was an emergency situation, and this is slightly less of one, but they appear to stem from the same thing. But the lack of availability for prime dates and the cost in renting the facility for 30 regular-season and up to 11 postseason games each year might be a deal-breaker.

Carmel Ice Skadium
A rink in Carmel, the Skadium has hosted Ice exhibition games and on one occasion, hosted a professional game (the 1984 Adams Cup Finals Game 4 between the Checkers and an Oilers team that had been turned into a traveling show, which turned out to be the final game in the history of the old CHL). It has bench seats running the length of the facility on one side, but it was obviously intended to host high school and youth games and be used as a practice rink.
Pros: Location, it's available. A sizeable portion of the Ice fanbase is close-by. It has a few meeting rooms and such to accommodate the many scouts that work USHL games, as well as has enough room for the off-ice officials to operate. Fans are right on top of the action, and there is room to put seating around the glass on three sides.
Cons: Small seating capacity and a fairly small parking lot. Wouldn't handle the larger weekend crowds very well.
Analysis: The Skadium is a great rink, and there's a chance it could fit into future plans in some combination of arenas.

Pan Am Plaza
Also located downtown -- essentially across the street from the Indiana Convention Center -- Pan Am Plaza has two rinks and hosted several Ice games in 2009-10. The Ice played several weeknight regular-season games there that season, and also played their first-round playoff games against Cedar Rapids due to the Coliseum's unavailability.
Pros: Downtown location, TONS of available parking (including on-site parking garage), availability of meeting areas for teams & others.
Cons: Very small seating capacity. Its seating area is similar in size to the one at the Carmel Ice Skadium. Much like Carmel, it would be able to handle mid-week crowds fine, but for big weekend games, it would be bursting at the seams. Also, there is no real area for media and off-ice officials to work and to accommodate scouts. Due to its closeness to the Convention Center, the Plaza has been mentioned in redevelopment talks -- it was once floated as a site for the now-canceled 1,000-room InterContinental Hotel.

Outside the box ideas
In Indy: There aren't many places where a 200x85 sheet of ice could be laid down and supported. One possible idea is to rent a part of the Indiana Convention Center and build a temporary rink with temporary stands. This, however, would be costly and somewhat far-fetched.
New arena: A new arena could be built, but probably not until the 2013-14 season (at the earliest). That would require a significant infusion of capital, land purchase, permitting, et al. This is probably the least likely option.
Marion: This is a turnkey solution -- there is a rink going up in Marion off I-69, and it's slated to be complete by the 2012-13 USHL season. However, its operators -- Game7Seven, LLC -- are actively pursuing their own USHL franchise, believed to be the currently-dormant Thunder Bay franchise.
Fort Wayne: Since they are the Indiana Ice, why not take them statewide? Although Fort Wayne is an extremely passionate hockey market, it's not known whether or not they'd have enough room to support a team besides the Komets, even if it were for a few games a year.
Bloomington: Currently, the only sheet is at the Frank Southern Center, which is tiny and hard to access. But, with the bleachers retracted, the floor at Assembly Hall would be close to the right dimensions for a rink. However, the building has no ice plant, and it's unlikely IU could have one installed by the fall for even a few games a year. The positive is, there would be a ready-made fan base of students who love hockey. All of these options would require tremendous expense and, as we've seen in other sports, teams often do not fare well in temporary homes when the fan base knows the team is temporary -- they're unwilling to make the investment.

If rink availability becomes a true issue, the option of going dark for one or two years and resurrecting the franchise in 2014 is a possibility. It happened with the Checkers/Ice IHL franchise in 1987-88, but that was due to financial difficulties, not rink availability (both MSA and the Coliseum were available at the time). That year was also the last year Indianapolis has not had a hockey team representing the city. It was done in Fort Worth in 2006-07 as the CHL Brahmas moved from one arena to another, and also with the ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones in the mid-2000s while there was competition with the AHL Mighty Ducks in the same market. When the Mighty Ducks folded shop, the Cyclones' ownership reinstated their franchise. The Ice could maintain a skeleton front office and continue to operate the U18 and U16 Junior Ice teams. As noted, I highly doubt this as a possibility, as Paul Skjodt has used the Ice as part of a pyramid intended to grow the game of hockey in Central Indiana, and it is paying off.

A more likely scenario is what was used with the CHL Evansville IceMen. The team played in the tiny Swonder Arena -- again, essentially a practice rink with 1,500 seats much like Pan Am Plaza or Carmel Ice Skadium -- for a year before moving to the modern Ford Center for this season. Indianapolis is too valuable of a market, even without a viable rink available. For example, the Fort Wayne Komets ownership has long voiced a desire to have Indianapolis back in its league (currently the CHL), so it's unlikely that going dark would be considered unless it was necessary for the survival of the franchise, as a likely scenario could bring competition from lower-level pro leagues into the market.

Personal analysis
The educated guess would be that the Ice would use some combination of Bankers Life Fieldhouse and either Pan Am Plaza or the Carmel Ice Skadium for the two years the Coliseum is unavailable, with an increased number of games at the Fieldhouse -- especially with prime weekend/holiday dates, and the Ice's many promotional nights would be rolled into those dates (Opening Night, Boy Scout Night, Pack the House Night, New Year's Eve and several other games), and then play the other games at the secondary rink -- including weeknight and Sunday games and a few weekend games, especially early in the season. In their various permutations, the Ice franchises have been a major part of the Indianapolis sports scene for 24 years now, and they will continue to be for the near future. If a tertiary rink is needed for one or two games, Marion (if not in use by another USHL franchise) or Fort Wayne might be options to bring the Ice to Indiana. Then, in 2014, the Ice move back into the renovated Coliseum to celebrate the grand old building's 75th anniversary. But again, that's a personal analysis given the options available.

We will endeavor to follow up on this and pass along information as we get it.

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