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WisBiz In-Depth: La Crosse Center could be home to sports again

By Gregg Hoffmann

The La Crosse Center, which once housed CBA basketball and indoor football teams, could be on the verge of becoming a sports venue once again.

Representatives of the All-American Professional Basketball League and the United States Hockey League have expressed interest in putting franchises into La Crosse.

The Center housed CBA basketball until the Bobcats ceased operations in February of 2001. An indoor football team called the River Rats also played there until a couple years ago.

Of course, minor league pro sports give a facility a regular tenant and have the potential to bring thousands of fans over the course of a season into the downtown area of La Crosse.

"There are advantages of having sports franchises," said center director Art Fahey in a phone interview. "You have a potential of 60 or more dates already scheduled if you include hockey and basketball. Of course, those events will draw from a radius of 30-40 miles. That helps restaurants and bars, but doesn't add as much to hotels, for example. You have to compare the sports with the possible displacement of other events we hold here."

Tom Tourville of the La Crosse Visitors and Convention Bureau said no economic studies of the impact of previous sports franchises were ever done in La Crosse. "My guess is the kinds of teams we are talking about don't bring huge numbers of fans like the Packers, so the impact is from local people coming to the events," Tourville said.

Tourville said he didn't think sports franchises would make the "economic needle jump off the gauge," but added that any additional attraction "would be good for the town" in many ways.

The AAPBL already has announced franchises in Casper, Wyoming; Billings, Butte and Great Falls in Montana; Lincoln, Nebraska; Cedar Falls, Iowa; and Pueblo, Colorado.

Mankato, Minnesota, announced this week it will have a franchise in the league, which is scheduled to start play in November 2005.

Worth Christie, a Casper businessman, is heading up the league and has been putting money where his mouth is. Christie met with the La Crosse Center Board on Jan. 10 and met again with Fahey and a couple board members on Tuesday of this week.

"I've got to get on the street and get the sales going along with the tickets. I want to be on the street with a GM and active sales staff," Christie recently told the La Crosse Tribune. "I want to go into this with enough lead time so that we have the ability to be successful."

Hockey Requires Renovation

Meanwhile, the USHL has been interested in La Crosse for a while. Some local investors have been working with a group called the Victory Sports Group since 2001.

The USHL is a junior hockey league with players who are 20-years-old or older. They are not paid, but some end up signing minor league contracts with the American Hockey League and others, and a few even go to the NHL – when that league is not involved in a work stoppage as it now is.

A St. Paul architectural firm has been studying the La Crosse Center and the nearby Green Island Arena to see if they could be remodeled to accommodate hockey. The report should be ready before this spring.

Many feel the Center could house only one or the other, basketball or hockey, and not both. Facilities like the Bradley Center in Milwaukee are home to both sports, with the Bucks and Admirals, but a smaller facility like the Center might not be able to handle both.

Fahey said the Center seats about 6,100 for basketball and even though hockey has never been housed there the estimate if a capacity of 4,600 for that sport. He said the facility could physically be renovated to handle both sports, but costs of that work and the size of the marketplace overall were other considerations.

Tourville said he doubted if there were enough open dates at the Center to accommodate basketball and hockey, plus the conventions and shows that already serve as staples for the Center.

"You're talking about the same time of the year for many of these events," Tourville said. "There just aren't enough open dates."

Mike Tatoian, the president of the St. Louis-based Victory Sports Group, argues that hockey could work, because he has seen it do well in other arenas around the country. That includes the one in Moline, Ill., where his group owns the USHL's Quad City Mallards. "If a family is looking for an affordable outing, I don't think they (basketball) can beat what the USHL has to offer," Tatoian told the La Crosse Tribune . "We're a proven league that has been around a long, long time. Honestly, it comes back to the study. That will make the decision easy for the city and for us. If it is indeed an affordable retrofit, we will continue to pursue it. We have never represented that we expect the city to bore the entire expense of the retrofit. There are ways we can make this work. "I know how much the dasher boards, the ice pit, the hockey scoreboard, the Zamboni, the locker rooms and the electricity will cost because we did that in the Quad Cities," Tatoian said. "We understand that it is the city's responsibility to evaluate all of the options and to make a decision in the best interest of the city. We respect that and we have been patient."

So, officials might have to make an either-or decision. Fahey said the 8-member Center board could hold a meeting as early as next week on the matter.

Some Previous Sports Success

The CBA franchises did well in La Crosse for a couple seasons, when Flip Saunders, now coach of the NBA Minnesota Timberwolves coached a team called the Catbirds to two championships. But, eventually attendance dropped and the team struggled. In fact, the entire CBA at the time broke apart.

A USHL hockey franchise has done well in Waterloo, Iowa, a town somewhat similar to La Crosse, for 25 years. The USHL is a Tier I amateur league that has 11 franchises in five Upper Midwest States.

Organizers of such leagues are interested in La Crosse because of its previous experience with minor league sports and because of the phenomenal success of the La Crosse Loggers baseball team in recent years.

The Loggers, owned by newly-elected 32nd State Senator Dan Kapanke, have set attendance records for a new Northwoods League team and made the playoffs last season.

Northwoods League players are college players who get summer experience in the league. They are not paid and stay in homes of volunteer hosts.

The Northwoods League also has teams in Wausau and Madison, and will expand to Eau Claire this coming season.

But, some observers don't believe you can compare a summer game like baseball to the events that would be held at the Center. Weather and other factors become bigger factors in winter.

"There are a lot of factors that have to be considered," Tourville said. "Our group and others work closely with the Center board, but I believe ultimately they are going to have to make some very difficult decisions."


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