Knights pledge to make it work

by Mike Patterson, Omaha World-Herald || AHL On The Beat Archive

oma_200.jpgWhile attendance at Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights games ranks among the lowest in the American Hockey League, Ren Smith remains upbeat about the franchise’s future.

"Our attendance is 20 percent higher than it was at this time last year," said Smith, the team president. "And we feel the strongest part of our home schedule is yet to come."

The Knights, in their second season in Omaha, are 26th in the 27-team league in attendance. Omaha is averaging 3,081 fans for 19 home games. The league average near the midpoint of the season is 5,075.

In its first season as the Calgary Flames’ top farm club, Omaha finished last in the AHL in attendance with an average of 3,271 per game.

But Smith points out that the Knights’ numbers improved during the second half of last season, and he said the same situation is expected this year.

"We intentionally worked our schedule to have more home games over the second half," he said. "And that’s when most of our promotions will be, so we’re excited about the next few months."

Part of that scheduling change has to do with the popularity of Nebraska football, which closed its season on Jan. 1 in the Cotton Bowl.

"We all know Husker football is the king in this state," Smith said. "Now that NU is finished, hopefully more people will come out and see us."

There are signs of improvement. Omaha averaged 2,606 during its first 16 games last year, more than 500 fewer fans per game than the Knights are averaging this year. The last two games of 2006 also were significant. With a weekend promotion geared at kids, the Knights drew more than 5,000 fans on two consecutive nights – their two best crowds of the season.

Team officials have worked this season to make the Knights more family friendly. Ticket prices have been reduced, and children 12 and under are admitted free with a paid adult.

An effort also has been made to raise the franchise’s profile. Players and coaches have visited elementary schools and Children’s Hospital throughout the season.

Still, Smith admits that he would love to see more fans in the stands.

"We’re thankful for the folks we’ve got," he said. "But would we like to see more of them? Of course."

That opinion is echoed by Michael Holditch, chief financial officer for the Flames. "From our standpoint, we’re seeing an improvement over last year," he said. "We’re still disappointed by the numbers, so we wish people would simply focus on the product and see how entertaining it is."

Holditch added that Calgary has made an investment in the Omaha franchise – the club signed a five-year lease with the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority when it came to town – and is not eager to look elsewhere.

"We’re not talking about pulling out," he said. "We’re talking about making it work."

Smith said Calgary officials have not presented a bottom-line attendance average for the team to remain in Omaha.

"I’ve gotten no indications that they’re looking elsewhere," he said. "Calgary is a class organization, and I think our community is fortunate to have it here."

The presence of two other local hockey teams undoubtedly has played a role in the Knights’ attendance figures. The Division I University of Nebraska at Omaha is averaging 4,992 for 10 home games at the Qwest Center Omaha, and the Omaha Lancers of the junior United States Hockey League are averaging 2,777 for 14 home games at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs.

And at times, all three have played at home on the same night – a situation Smith hopes to avoid in the future.

"I think everyone wants to work together on it," he said. "We want to be cognizant when the others play, because that affects us all."

Holditch said the three-team market is something the Knights will need to overcome.

"All we can say to fans is to sample all three and see which one they like best," Holditch said. "We know we’re the new kid on the block, but we feel like we have a lot to offer."

Despite seeing several players called up the past six weeks, the Knights have remained competitive in the AHL’s West Division. Omaha is 25-13-3-0 while playing in one of the toughest divisions in the league.

"We’ve had nine players go up to play in the NHL this season," Smith said. "Fans have a chance to see these guys on their way up."

Those players also have contributed in Calgary when they’ve gotten the chance. David Moss and Dustin Boyd, who began the season with the Knights, recently scored game-winning goals for the Flames.

Smith said he is confident that several promotions will help bump up attendance. Those include a visit on Saturday night by the Famous Chicken, a NASCAR night promoting the Kansas Speedway and a retro jersey night.

"The Calgary people know it takes times to build something," Smith said. "We’re still feeling our way, but we’re confident that we’re moving in the right direction."