The Alaska Aces, the state’s largest professional sports organization for nearly a decade and half, is considering ceasing operations after the current season, according to sources familiar with the situation.
“Nothing has officially been decided yet,” Aces co-owner Jerry Mackie said in a phone interview Friday. “We’ve been struggling. Look at the fans in our stadium. It’s been a labor of love for fifteen years and we’re trying to figure out what’s next in store.”
But money and numbers are both working against the organization. Oil prices have plummeted and the Aces seem to have fallen victim to Alaska’s sagging economy.
Their hockey neighbor — the University of Alaska Anchorage, a program which has regularly fed them players over the years, narrowly escaped elimination this season due to budget cuts. An eleventh hour decision put the Seawolves back in play, but their future remains murky.
After winning the Kelly Cup in 2014, the ECHL’s version of the Stanley Cup, the Aces have gone two seasons without making the playoffs. Couple that with the state’s continued fiscal woes, and fans in Alaska are faced with the very real prospect that this season may be the last.
It’s no secret that the Aces have felt a strain at the gate for some time. Since their title run three years ago, they’ve seen a steady decline in fan attendance.
In 2014, playing a 72-game regular season, with 36 at Sullivan Arena, the Aces ranked 12 out of 21 teams in fan attendance, averaging 4,619 fans per game. But the following two seasons saw a decline. In 2015, the average game attendance slumped to 4,367 fans per game and last season the drop became even steeper. They fell to 19 out of 28 and their average dipped below the 4,000 mark to 3,386 fans per game.
According the ECHL’s website, the league averaged 4,385 fans per game last season. This year, despite a resurgence in play, Alaska still sits 19th at 3,829. It’s a stunning development, but the dots connect more clearly if you look at fan attendance a decade ago.
In 2007 they pulled in an average of 5,152 fans per game, putting them in the higher echelon of the league — number 7 out of 25 franchises.
Since joining the ECHL, the Aces have been regarded around the league as an organization with a strong reputation of consistency and winning. They qualified for the playoffs in their first 11 seasons, winning the Kelly Cup in 2006, 2011 and 2014.
This is the team’s 14th season as a member of the ECHL, which is based in Princeton, New Jersey. The Aces joined in 2003-04 as part of an aggressive western expansion by the league.
To add to the turmoil, one of the Aces’ minority owners, Rod Udd, recently passed away. It’s still unclear how that directly affects the ownership group, which stood at six while Mr. Udd was alive. This week, a family spokesman said details on Mr. Udd’s estate were still being addressed.
At this point, it’s unclear where the Aces’ franchise will end up. According to sources, the organization plans to make a formal announcement regarding any decision on Wednesday.
John Thompson and Dave Leval contributed reporting.