Jim and Rob Brooks—of the Brooks Group from Pittsburgh–are the owners and partners of the group that will bring AHL Hockey to Allentown. From accounts that I’ve read, they have received a favorable lease agreement which should allow them to be successful. I’ve chosen not to comment on the propriety of the arena project, the choice of location, and the tax scheme used to finance it. I didn’t get a say in these decisions (nor a vote) and what’s done is done. At this point, I can only cheer for success—failure won’t help anyone. The rising tide floats all boats, as they say. Based on my recent hockey “research” (I’m not a REAL hockey fan, yet)—and my experience as an IronPigs season ticket holder (2009-2014)—I offer the following letter:
Dear Jim and Rob,
Thank you for your plan to bring AHL hockey to the Lehigh Valley. Given the success of the IronPigs and the proximity to Philadelphia, along with the favorable nature of your deal, I have confidence that you will be successful in this endeavor. However, given the advantages that you’ve been granted, it is my opinion that all of the Lehigh Valley—maybe even all of Pennsylvania—and not just Allentown, have a stake in your success. Given that stake, as a fan of professional sports and a potential season ticket holder, I offer the following “DO’s” and “DON’Ts” to assist you. I understand that you did not ask for this advice, but that’s never stopped me before.
DO: Invest in parking and travel solutions. This includes space, instruction, staff, publicity, planning, and anything else that’s needed. Consider buying or renting busses to help shuttle groups if necessary. Consider a valet option. I’m serious about this. Your detractors have already decided that this is going to be a failure, so my suggestion is to over-compensate with solutions, and publicize them every chance you get from now until after the end of the 2013-2014 hockey season. You cannot risk growing pains here. The IronPigs had some early difficulty, but were able to overcome it. Even if it’s ‘not that bad’ many will perceive it to be bad simply based on this preconception.
DON’T: Count on concerts to fill the arena. I’m sure you’ll get some, but with the area festivals (Musikfest, Allentown Fair, Mayfair) and other venues (Sands/ArtsQuest, State Theater, Stabler, even Penn’s Peak) you’ll have plenty of competition for acts.
DO: Consider a sports co-tenant. I suggest MILS if the Steelhawks are not amenable to a move from Stabler. Soccer is huge in this area for the youth. Youth teams will provide an excellent source of group revenue. I believe Syracuse is able to host both MILS and AHL at the same facility. Erie hosts UIFL Football, OHL Hockey, and NBA-D-league basketball. I guess lacrosse (Wilkes Barre – Scranton has it) would be my last choice, as the market is probably smallest.
DO: Make sure it’s NICE. Nothing will kill this thing faster than if it feels cheap or poorly done—even if you do master the parking problem. There will be a curiosity factor, but folks aren’t going to make a second trip downtown unless they feel comfortable. This includes the parking and driving above, but also the appearance and comfort of everything from the seats to the restrooms and every amenity in between. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Coca Cola Park won ballpark design awards as well as set attendance records. The two are related. Just ask the Yankees, who are taking the whole year to remodel PNC in Moosic.
DON’T: Skimp on the A/V. Technology is moving quickly. Whatever you buy will be obsolete soon. But, you won’t want to replace it right away, either. Go ahead and get the biggest video board(s) you can afford, as well as the best sound system. Overspend here. It will pay off in the end.
DO: Keep it family friendly. I’ll probably be there anyway, but my whole crew isn’t trekking down there for games if we’re not comfortable and having fun both in and out of the arena. Something about the way Reading did it was more kid-friendly compared with WB-Scranton.
DON’T: Lose the Philadelphia connection. Based on the number of Flyers jerseys that I saw in Reading—and despite my own affinity for the Penguins—the built-in number of Philadelphia hockey fans will provide you with a nice base right off the bat.
DO: Get in touch with the AHL about realignment. They won’t respond to my emails, but I’m sure you can see that as many games as possible with WB-S/Hershey/Binghamton will drive attendance as well as save on travel expenses.
DON’T: Neglect the concessions. A wide variety of choices will keep folks coming back to eat and drink as well as to enjoy the hockey experience. Plus it’s a nice way to make a few bucks, too, eh?
DO: Dedicate extra staff to group sales. Group sales is what really fills the park every night for baseball. Don’t neglect it if you want the seats full. This is also how you attract the casual fan, and convert him/her into repeat customers as well as season ticket holders. This is also a way to assure prove the safety of the neighborhood and the ease of travel and parking.
DO: Consider conventions and meetings as a method of using the facility, if appropriate.
DON’T: Worry about the vuvuzelas. Let ‘em in from the beginning and people will be used to them. Works in Reading.
In closing, I’d just like to say, “Take care of the fans, and the fans will take care of you.”