Sunday, April 09, 2006

Barons sign off

Not to take anything away from the good things that are happening in Cleveland sports. And for the first time in a long time, good things seem to be falling out of the trees.
Just this weekend, the Indians completed a sweep of the Twins to improve to 5-1 on the young season. The Cavaliers posted an impressive win against the Nets Saturday afternoon, and have formally nailed down the fourth seed in the East.
But I have to take a timeout to write a small eulogy. While Travis Hafner and Casey Blake have been piercing the cold April air with home run balls, while LeBron James continues to stretch the boundaries of imagination and description, the Cleveland Barons have been laying down to die, yet again.
Saturday, Cleveland bid farewell to yet another hockey franchise with the Barons' home finale. The Barons will be reborn next fall as the Worcester Sharks.
Chances are you don't care. That's part of the problem.
It appears the Barons came to Cleveland with the idea that a small-but-loyal cult following would be enough to survive. It wasn't, not when they had to compete against three major-league franchises for dollars.
For five years, by design, the Barons flew under the radar of public consciousness in Cleveland. They promoted themselves with newspaper ads and not much else. Their presence on television and radio was virtually nonexistent. They reaped what what sown: four-figure crowds, sluggish merchandise sales and suffocating apathy from the vast majority of Cleveland fans.
Barons management must have realized within a few years the franchise was in over its head in a major market. When Barons management began looking for a place to relocate last year, they looked at cities that were similar to Lexington, Ky., where the Barons had previously existed as the Kentucky Thoroughblades.
First, the franchise was rumored to be headed to the Quad Cities area of Iowa. This year, management settled on Worcester, Mass.
In retrospect, the Barons were probably doomed the instant George Gund sold the parent San Jose Sharks. Their fate was sealed when brother Gordon sold the Cavs and Gund Arena last year.
The Sharks-Barons connection made sense in 2001, when the Barons arrived. The Gunds owned the Cavs, the Sharks and their home arenas. Having the Sharks' top farm club play in Cleveland was a great way to pocket more revenue.
But with the Gunds out of the picture, that connection was cut, and suddenly the Cleveland-San Jose affiliation made no sense at all.
It is just another in a long line of things that just didn't add up about the Barons. And hockey fans in Cleveland are the ones who have to ultimately pay the price.
At Saturday night's game, one thing stood out to me before I even found my seat. Every hockey franchise Cleveland has ever had was represented by at least one jersey in the crowd.
The original AHL Barons. The WHA Crusaders. The NHL Barons. The IHL Lumberjacks. The current Barons. At least one fan was wearing a jersey for each. Some were represented more than once.
Though Cleveland only had NHL hockey for two seasons in the 1970s, there are fans who embrace the long, if fragmented, history of pro hockey here.
Cleveland may never get an NHL franchise again, certainly not with the Columbus Blue Jackets playing two hours away. But Cleveland should be more than a hockey halfway house for disorganized, financially-withered teams.
The onus appears to be on Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who reportedly is finalizing a deal to buy the dormant Utah Grizzlies of the AHL and move them to Cleveland. He must find a way to get Cleveland to rediscover hockey on a large scale.
The first step is in place. Gilbert and his staff will keep the franchise in drydock for a year so they can formulate a business and marketing strategy for the new team. In a major-league town, slick marketing and tightly-managed money are the only ways a minor-league team can survive.
Cleveland hockey fans deserve as much. Five hockey franchises have failed in Cleveland's history. Here's hoping Gilbert's franchise isn't the sixth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

With prices like they are now offering, don't expect Cleveland to last long. Management is definitely deluded here. Glass seats for $60. $9 seats now $20. Its unfortunate because marketed correctly, even in a major league city, AHL hockey could be successful in Cleveland again. They really missed the boat here though. Do you think Joe Average is gonna regularly pluck down $30+ for a decent seat to a minor league hockey game? I’m sure opening night will be packed, but by the middle of the season, it’s gonna be a sea of empty seats as usual.