Springfield Falcons on their way out

Robby Ollari, Editor-in-Chief


Empty seats have been commonplace at the Falcons games this year.
Leon Nguyen
Empty seats have been commonplace at the Falcons games this year.

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Falcons’ average attendance for the 2015-16 American Hockey League season was a weak 3,108, good for dead last in the league in attendance (according to hockeydb.com).

That 3,108 figure means that the Falcons effectively played in an empty MassMutual Center for much of their home schedule this year.

But come October, when a new hockey season would generally begin, the MassMutual Center will literally be empty.

22News (WWLP) locally was the first to report that the Arizona Coyotes – the National Hockey League parent club of the AHL’s Falcons – were looking to uproot the franchise and move their affiliate to Tucson, Ariz.

On Tuesday, April 19, Ron Chimelis of The Republican/MassLive reported that Falcons owner Charlie Pompea confirmed to the paper that the wheels are in motion to sell the franchise to the Coyotes and that the Falcons are on their way out.

The news comes just about a year after Arizona came to terms with the Falcons on a three-year affiliation deal. This season – a season in which the Falcons finished in last place finish in their division (26-42-8=60 points) and were the second worst team in the entire 30 team league – was the first year of the contract.

There’s a (small) chance that Arizona plays out the balance of the affiliation agreement in Springfield and then moves the farm team to Tucson, but don’t hold your breath. And there’s also a (small) chance another NHL team comes in and saves hockey in Springfield, placing their farm team here, but that’s also highly unlikely.

The Falcons had kept quiet since the reports of their relocation surfaced last Wednesday night, with no acknowledgement in the media or on any of their social media sites until this past Tuesday.

Sarah Pompea, the President of the Falcons, did not respond to an email I sent her last Friday morning, and still has yet to respond (not that I’m expecting a response at this point).

Leon Nguyen is a senior at American International College. He also happens to be an intern with the Falcons, working as a photographer at the home games.

“I have been interning here this season and really grew fond of the fans and the staff here,” Nguyen said. I’ve had some good experience in sport photography as well as being able to communicate with the fans. It’s sad if the news is true.”

While Nguyen may not be as “plugged in” as those in the team’s front office are, he said that he and many others who work for the Falcons were unaware of the situation until the story broke in the local media.

“I also worry about the futures of the staff who work here if there will be no more Falcons hockey,” said Nguyen. “Jobs will be lost and joys will be gone.”

Hockey in Springfield has been a mainstay since 1926, when the always-popular Springfield Indians were established (they became the Springfield Kings from 1967-74 before returning back to the Indians identity).

80 years of minor league hockey in the city is impressive, and the 22-year run for the Falcons isn’t a bad run either, but their demise has been a long time coming, and the end has been inevitable for quite a few years.

The 3,108 average attendance from this past season is the franchise’s worst average in their 22 seasons. They averaged 3,906 just three years ago (2012-13 season) – somewhat respectable – but since then, the numbers have plummeted.

Even worse: the Falcons have not eclipsed the 4,000 average attendance mark since the 2002-03 season (4,283 that year).

The Falcons cannot draw 3,108 (on average) a night and succeed. The MassMutual Center holds about 6,800 for hockey, so drawing under half-capacity night in and night out, with thousands of empty seats night in and night out, just is not going to cut it.

Group sales and giveaways were likely all that kept the Falcons alive, banking on a few big nights per season where the arena is filled close to capacity.

Springfield may have been a hockey market at one point when the Indians would play in front of a packed house at the old Big E Coliseum, but those days are long gone.

Longtime owner Bruce Landon sold the Falcons to a group led by investor Charles Pompea in the winter of 2010, and right out of the gate Pompea pledged to keep the team in Springfield. Season ticket drives have failed, and there’s still no rush at the box office whenever the Falcons are in town, so here we are today, with the city losing their only professional team.

To me, the news comes as no surprise. I have been to many Falcons games where the arena was completely empty. My dad bought partial season ticket packages for a few years, but the price seemed to keep going up and up, so that stopped. The Falcons have been trying for so long to try to ramp up ticket sales, but nothing has really worked.

Attendance has been a problem for them for quite some time – even a couple of seasons ago when they made the playoffs for the first time in years.

Maybe the Falcons priced themselves out. Or maybe a rundown downtown that no one wants to go to after dark hurts them. Or both – does anyone really believe Downtown Springfield is a destination? Because it just isn’t. Anyone who thinks Downtown is a place to be should just stop kidding themselves.

22News alluded to the possibility of the Falcons returning if the NHL expands in two years, as Las Vegas has been rumored to be a target for NHL expansion. 22News says that franchise would play at an MGM-owned arena in Vegas, and then MGM would partner with MGM Springfield to bring back the Falcons.

Falcons 22Leon Nguyen
Hopefully there is some truth to that rumor, but we’ll have to wait and see. Until then, it looks like hockey fans in Western Mass are going to be shut out.