I had an interesting discussion with my producer on Saturday about viable OHL destinations in light of the Sarnia Sting opening up to the prospect of new ownership. Now news comes that the owner of the Belleville Bulls wants arena upgrades on the Yardmen Arena, or he may entertain the prospect of leaving down the road.
Sarnia 's owners the Cicarelli's want to turn over ownership of the arena back to the city and would like to keep any new owners to keep the team in Sarnia. According to the Sarnia Observer there have been several overtures to keep the team in Sarnia and one out of town prospect was politely declined. Keeping the team in the city is one thing. Making the franchise a viable money maker maybe another thing entirely. The Sting have long been fodder for the rest of the conference, making the playoffs sporadically and going to the second round only once when a Steven Stamkos led Sting team were summarily swept in four games by Kitchener. While the RBC Centre remains a viable arena, crowds have not exactly been flocking even with the likes of Stamkos, Alex Galchenyuk, and Nail Yakupov wearing the black and yellow. One who wants to own the franchise and keep it in Sarnia best take a long hard look at the financial books and then try to negotiate a favourable deal. It is not out of the realm of possibility that outside ownership may seek to move the Sting out of Sarnia.
For Belleville the arena is the issue. The antiquated Yardmen Arena is in need of upgrades, according to owner Gord Simmonds. The issue is that city funds appear to be allocated elsewhere and have looked at other important city services before the old barn gets a makeover. While the Bulls have long been a success on the ice, this year notwithstanding. attendance has not been consistent with that success. Average attendances in the low 2000's in the 3257 seat arena will not pay the bills, and as someone who has been to the Yardmen, it is not the most aesthetically pleasing arena. Dark green seats, and not well lit, the the arena also suffers from some overcrowding on its walk ways. There is a lease in place for next year and an option for two years after, but Simmonds may not want to wait as long as the city would like for the upgrades.
While both Sarnia and Belleville may be in play for new destinations, fans in that city should not plan for an imminent departure and an application for lame duck status. Staying in their respective destinations is preferred, even if teams are sold. No need to see if Art Model is being channelled and no need to be nervous if you see moving trucks moving on the 402 or 401. A quick perusal of the province does not see too many great alternatives for new franchises in Ontario. Brantford always seems to be a preferred destination, but either needs some new arena upgrades of its own or it could be a temporary holding spot for say a franchise in Hamilton, where the AHL's Bulldogs still are housed at the newly named First Ontario Centre but have always been rumoured to be on the move. Other destination? Chatham? Cornwall? Newmarket? Buffalo? Can't see those locations being a sure fire alternative.
That said whenever its is tax dollars being renegotiated for arenas, people become a little more protective of their money. This might be a delicate negotiation, one that might receive some blow back from the respective populations of the cities.
A more comprehensive look at the issues both teams face can be found here: