The following is Part 1 of a two-part story on the Ontario Reign’s inaugural season in the American Hockey League, looking at how they did off the ice, and in terms of developing Los Angeles Kings prospects.
LOS ANGELES — On January 29, 2015, when the American Hockey League announced that five teams would move to California to begin play in a new Pacific Division, the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ AHL affiliate, was in the midst of an outstanding regular season that would end with them in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The Monarchs not only went on a deep playoff run, but they went on to win the 2015 Calder Cup Championship.
But the Monarchs’ time to celebrate was rather short, as the team moved to Ontario, California over the summer to become the AHL edition of the Ontario Reign, while the ECHL version of the Reign moved east to become the ECHL Manchester Monarchs.
For all intents and purposes, the Los Angeles Kings swapped their AHL and ECHL affiliates, bringing their AHL affiliate more than 3,000 miles west—virtually into their own backyard, and in their inaugural season in the AHL, the Reign were highly successful despite losing in the Western Conference Final to the eventual Calder Cup Champion Lake Erie Monsters in a four-game sweep.
When you consider that the 2015-16 Reign was not as skilled as the 2015 Calder Cup Champion Monarchs were, not to mention that the players, coaches and some staff had to make the move out West over the summer, along with a myriad of other things that had to be done before the new season began last October, going as deep into the AHL playoffs as they did is, at least, somewhat remarkable.
“This team was a lot of fun to watch,” said Reign President Darren Abbott. “[Our season] was more than respectable. I mean, there were only four teams left standing when we went out, so I think that’s a great year. It’s always tough when you measure it against a year where you go all the way, but our coaches and players had a great year, and it wasn’t easy for them.”
The first challenge was a big upgrade to the dressing room at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario.
“The number one thing about off the ice things that affected things on the ice was that we had to build a new locker room, basically from the studs up,” said Abbott. “We played in Manchester until mid-June and we had a quick turnaround.”
“The main challenge for acclimating the players was that locker room,” added Abbott. “In the ECHL, the benches were on the ‘wrong’ side—you have the long [line] change twice—so we had to figure out a way to make it so that our locker room was behind the right bench. I think we did a great job with it.”
Upgrading the dressing room was just one of many items on what was a very long to-do list for Abbott and his staff. But the results indicate that they met the challenges head on and tackled them well.
“The ECHL version of the Ontario Reign, last year, went deep into the playoffs as well, so we didn’t have a ton of time,” Abbott noted. “We [transitioned] over the summer when a lot of us were moving our families out here, so it just seemed like we were up against it from a time constraint standpoint.”
“I have a wife and three boys and we moved out here over the summer, so just getting acclimated was the number one challenge,” Abbott added. “But there were a lot of those types of things—logistical challenges—that we’re not going to have to face this off-season, which is going to help us, not just from a hockey standpoint, but from a business standpoint. There’s so many of those logistical things that we didn’t know we were going to encounter, but we did. We took’em head on, we were able to get through them, and now we can start building and growing.”
The Reign retained most of the staff from their ECHL days.
“I inherited a great staff,” Abbott emphasized. “[Founding President of the ECHL Reign] Justin Kemp did a great job here in the ECHL. It was a good culture, and an especially good season ticket sales culture. We had some work to do, as far as sponsorship and just understanding some of the extra exposure you get in the American Hockey League, pricing, and some of those things. We hired outside consultants to get our pricing in order, as far as our sponsorships were concerned.”
“I was really pleased with what we found here, in terms of staffing,” Abbott added. “We moved some people in and out throughout the year, but they were really subtle changes. We didn’t make any wholesale, broad changes on the front office side, which is always good. You never want to have to do that. It’s not very fun to do that.”
“The staff that I inherited took on the challenge of being one of the top teams in the AHL, after being one of the top teams in the ECHL, and I think we’ve done it. We have room to improve. We always do. Everyone does, but I think they did a great job.”
Having the Kings just an hour away, or more often, two or three, depending on traffic, has been a big plus for the Reign, and not just on the ice.
“On the business side, we’ve been working hand-in-hand with [Kings Chief Operating Officer] Kelly Cheeseman, [Kings President/Business Operations] Luc Robitaille, and their staff, on various projects, even collaborating on sponsorship deals,” Abbott noted. “We’ve been able to piggyback on some of the Kings’ deals, and I think we’ve helped the Kings bird dog some ourselves, so that’s been really good. There’s been a lot of synergy, and I think Luc and Kelly will tell you that we’ve helped them grow their brand out here in the Inland Empire, and the Kings have helped us grow our brand.”
“I think that’s been the best part of it—the synergy,” Abbott added.
The Reign didn’t miss a beat on ticket sales, despite the transition during a short summer. In fact, they ranked fourth in the AHL in attendance, averaging 8,570 tickets sold during the regular season.
Per the Citizens Business Bank Arena web site, the arena seats 9,736 for hockey.
“I was really pleased with our attendance,” said Abbott. “We had 18 sellouts, most of them in the back half of the year. It’s a great building, first of all. It’s a wonderful building—the perfect size. We want to get some improvements done to it, for sure, in terms of [high definition television monitors] and some Wi-Fi, but it’s a great building for our level of hockey.”
A big reason for their impressive attendance figures is season ticket sales.
“We’ve done a tremendous job, if you factor in our premium seats,” Abbott noted. “We’re well over 4,000 in a 9,000-plus-seat arena. I think we’d like to get over 5,000, and I think we’d stop at that point. We’re already in a position of growth for next year. We’re past the point where we were for [last] season, so from now until the beginning of the [2016-17] season, everything we sell now is gravy, compared to last year.”
“We had a great playoffs, in terms of season ticket sales,” Abbott added. “That’s the one thing about these deep playoff runs. Your hockey is still relevant; your fans are still there. You can invite people out and put season ticket packages in front of them, and that’s what we did. We took great advantage of it, and I’m proud of our staff for doing that. It puts us in a great position for next year.”
“We were very, very strong this year and we were also very competitive. But we want to be number one, so we’ll have a busy off-season. We’re pleased, but there’s room to grow, and that’s what we do from now until we drop the puck again in October.”
As strong as their regular season attendance was, Ontario’s playoff attendance followed the same pattern that the ECHL Reign established during their playoff runs, where some games were well attended, but just as often, if not slightly more, their building was half-full, or less.
“We have a big season ticket base, but playoff tickets aren’t included in those packages,” Abbott explained. “We can do a better job of marketing playoff tickets to our season ticket holders in the future. But the biggest thing is that a large portion of our ticket sales is group sales. It’s hard to sell group tickets on a few days notice. We average over 2,000 group tickets per game during the regular season.”
“[During the playoffs], if we advance on a Wednesday and then have to [begin the series] on a Saturday, we can’t get to [organizations or businesses in the community in time, so] that’s tough,” Abbott elaborated. “Having said that, there’s things we can do to improve.”
Abbott stressed that without having to deal with transitioning from the East Coast this summer, it’s time to step up marketing efforts.
“The one thing we have to do is continue to work with the Kings and find ways to co-market and co-brand with them,” he said. “They have so many fans and they have such a huge database. What they’ve been able to do in the last five-to-ten years has been just phenomenal. The more we go in lock step with them, we use their digital footprint, and we work with their branding and marketing people, I think that’s the key.”
“We know how to sell season tickets out here,” he added. “We do it as well as anyone I’ve seen, and we’ll continue to grow that. But as far as the overall brand and the overall market reach, I think we’re going to have to rely on the help of the Kings and Kelly Cheeseman’s staff for that.”
Abbott indicated that it’s also time to increase their visibility through outreach efforts in the Inland Empire, although it will be challenging.
“I think we’re moving in that direction, actually, getting more grass-roots,” he noted. “But our footprint is so big-4,000,000 people—it’s hard to know where to go. There’s Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, the High Desert. It’s hard to pick and choose exactly where we should be, so it’s definitely a challenge. But it’s a good challenge to have when you’re talking about 4,000,000 people.”
Outreach to Inland Empire schools will also be critical.
“The one thing we can do is improve our impact in the schools, and one thing we’re going to do is play our pre-season game at 10:00 AM, and have a school day game with fourth, fifth and sixth-graders,” said Abbott. “Hopefully, we’ll get 7,000 kids out for that.”
“We’re going to try to push harder into the schools next year,” added Abbott. “That was something—we got a late start. This is the time of year to be talking to schools about next year because teachers are making their plans now. That was one of the things where the calendar snuck up on us [last season because of the move].”
Establishing new relationships in the community and strengthening ones is also part of the plan.
“We got our Hope Reigns Foundation going in the second half of the year, and we’re going to use that to not only help the community, raise money and to give money in grants, but also to get ourselves out there and let people know that we’re a community asset,” said Abbott. “We’re an amenity to the community. That’s what we are. That’s what pro sports teams are. We want to let people know that we’re here and that’s what we do.”
While the Reign are working on their marketing, outreach, ticket sales, supporting the local community, and other off-ice efforts, they are obviously, playing hockey and developing Kings prospects. How that worked out for the Reign (and the Kings) during the Reign’s inaugural season is covered in Part 2, which you can read by clicking on the link below.
LEAD PHOTO: Ontario Reign President Darren Abbott. Photo courtesy Ontario Reign.
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