With Belleville Bulls’ arena problem, bigger and new might not equal better

Neate Sager

The Belleville Bulls had no problem winning their playoff opener, but the OHL franchise's problem might be that it still plays in an arena when the public has been weaned on going to a centre.

The Bulls, prior to the Owen Sound Attack winning the J. Ross Robertson Cup in 2011, were probably the OHL's foremost small-market success story — a league title in 1999, a Memorial Cup berth in 2008 and a steady stream of graduates who have become successful NHLers, including Montreal Canadiens star P.K. Subban. Their gold jersey is iconic to aficionados of junior puck. However, you'd have better luck finding a matador in Marysville than reading anything about the Bulls where the comment section doesn't turn to the team's static attendance figures. It's almost Oakland Athletics-esque; the Bulls won the Eastern Conference regular-season title and did so with an offensively potent team full of fun-to-watch players, some of whom are not even named Subban. Yet the attendance at the Yardmen Arena, the sixth-oldest building in the 20-team OHL, is what it is, including an announced 2,222 on Thursday. That's 1,000 short of capacity in the OHL's smallest building (3,257; only the not-long-for-the-OHL rink in St. Catharines holds fewer).

Belleville owner Gord Simmonds has committed to staying through 2015, but a two-year deal is short lease. The devil in the details is that it's only "at least the end of the 2014-15 season with an option for a limited extension." In other words, what to do about the Bulls' long-term chances has been put off until after the next municipal election and could come to a head in 2015, when there could be a federal and provincial election to contend with in Ontario.

A press conference this week with Belleville mayor Neil Ellis and Simmonds sort of acknowledged the elephant in the room. A small city that would struggle to pay for a bells-and-whistles buiilding similar to those in Kingston, Oshawa, Windsor that have replaced the old junior hockey barns; an owner who probably isn't jonesing to relocate. (To really run the Oakland A's comparison into the ground, now that North Bay is back in the OHL, the league doesn't have a surefire relocation market, just like Major League Baseball. Keep dreaming, Montreal.)

Both the mayor and Simmonds said all the right things about the city's commitment to the team and vice versa, the importance of the team to the community and vice versa, and mostly about a new building coming for the Bulls by 2017.

“The next couple of years will be pretty important for us,” Simmonds said. “There won't be trucks backing up and moving this team. I'm convinced the city gets it, and doesn't want us to go away.

“Today,” he said, “my concern is whether we can build a large enough fan base. And building a bigger fan base is on us.”

What Simmonds didn't say is that building a bigger fan base would be easier with a better building. And that building a better building would be easier with a bigger fan base.

[Belleville mayor Neil] Ellis did a similar dance, not actually committing to anything.

“This will be a hard decision for the next council moving forward, but we've been knocking things off the list and the Bulls are in the 2017 timetable.”

The problem is that “knocking things off the list” keeps costing money. At some point the taxpayer well runs dry. (Belleville Intelligencer)

The Yardmen Arena, which actually began life with centre in its name (Quinte Sport Centre), is not a draw. It's a 1970s building that was designed with function in mind, and that it's; it's been described as resembling a warehouse. Some sightlines are poor and some concourses are narrow.

Time was, junior hockey was for fans only and they would tolerate that, but sports is now pure entertainment. Grassroots hockey also became gentrified. You couldn't have an arena with benches or double-seaters; you had to have moulded seats. The four-pad needed a sports bar/restaraunt and a fully serviced Tim Hortons instead of a canteen that served fries and hot chocolate. In OHL cities, that meant moving into new buildings with more seats than were needed for 95 per cent of a team's games, with a price point for tickets out of reach of many would-be fans. The loyal fans can end up feeling betrayed, like their time and money isn't good enough anymore.

Cities keep giving in to the Sports! Syndrome and signing off on projects, most recently with St. Catharines, Ont., committing a new arena that house the Niagara IceDogs. Perhaps that will kick in with Belleville, too. One brainstorm, though, is that it could be more penny-wise if it just modernized the Yardmen Arena, both its interior and exterior. The size of their arena probably isn't the issue. Junior hockey is a niche taste and there are only so many people in city of 50,000 to watch a game live instead of amusing themselves. So, some free advice here is that Belleville should think about a renovation.

There's too much of a legacy to lose for the sake of giving into the new-must-be-better mindset. Just promise to keep the OHL's only Olympic size ice surface.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.