Monday, October 31, 2016

A new era of hockey begins with a bang at the gate

 By Zachary Baru

There is something special happening in Downtown Springfield.

A new franchise, on a newly named street, and a rejuvenated fan base.  The Springfield Thunderbirds, on the corner of Bruce Landon Way and Main, have brought more than professional hockey back to the City of Springfield - the excitement is back, and as big as this city has seen in a long, long time.

It all begin with a packed house on opening night at the MassMutual Center.  October 22 marked the beginning of a new era of hockey in Springfield, and the passionate hockey faithful ensured a sellout crowd of 6,793. 

It was loud, energetic, and most of all, positive.  Springfield fans were glad to have the American Hockey League back in the city it belongs in, a city where it has been since 1926. The mood was upbeat, the crowd was thrilled, and the action could not have been better. A 5-4 overtime win for the Thunderbirds in their first home game, as the fans enjoyed a first-hand look at a new beginning in Springfield hockey. 

The story does not end there.  In previous seasons, big crowds in Springfield hockey are typically followed by less then average attendance at the next game.  Such was not the case with the Thunderbirds and their fans, as the second and third home games drew 4,764 and 6,157 fans consecutively this past Friday and Saturday.

Springfield, hockey is back.  And it is better than ever. A solid, committed ownership group, dedicated front office reaching out to the community in ways never tried before, a passionate fan base, and a city that once again, is loving, and supporting hockey.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes for

A note regarding my involvement in the Springfield Sting

Since the beginning of this blog in 2012, my intent has always been, and will always be, to write unbiased and informative articles about sports business in Western Massachusetts.

In May 2016, I founded the Springfield Sting, an expansion franchise of the American Basketball Association. As the Founder/Owner of the Sting, my promise to readers will be to continue an unbiased look at the business side of sports here in the Western region of the state.

I very rarely, if ever, will write about the Sting, as this would be a conflict of interest in truly unbiased reporting.  My intent will never be to promote the Sting in any way, as my goal will always be to report about the off-the-field stories that make the sports and entertainment industry such a special and unique part of the local economy.

To all of the readers of Western Mass. Sports Biz, I sincerely thank you for reading and supporting this blog since 2012.  Here's to another great season of sports in our part of the state here in Western Mass. 

- Zach Baru

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Thunderbirds a perfect match for Springfield

By Zachary Baru

The month of June was one of worry, optimism and relief for the sports community in Springfield.  Many were devastated to discover the news of the Falcons leaving for Arizona, but the region's sports fans remained hopeful that professional hockey in Springfield could return.  On June 15, those wishes were granted, when the Springfield Thunderbirds were announced at a press conference at the MassMutual Center.

The timing of the Thunderbirds just feels right.  This may be a new franchise, but the same great tradition of hockey remains in Springfield.  October of 2016 could not be a better time for "a new beginning" after years of uncertainty.

With speculation about the future of the Falcons throughout the last few seasons, it is comforting to know that Springfield indeed has professional hockey, and a bright future ahead.  The future may not be completely clear, but at least fans throughout the Pioneer Valley have a solid ownership group that shares the same goals as the community.

To be blunt, the investors of the Thunderbirds want hockey in Springfield, plain and simple.  They would not be here if they didn't.  To know that Springfield has a group of dedicated individuals that have a vested interest in keeping hockey in the city is comforting for the community.  Simply put, June was a great month for Springfield sports.

Call it "a new beginning", call it "carrying on the tradition", whatever anyone would like to label it as, the Thunderbirds is a perfect match for Springfield.  On one hand, the Thunderbirds feels like a traditional franchise.  It feels like one that fans going back to the Indians and Falcons can root for and call their own.  Be it the name, the logo, or the way this franchise was introduced, it certainly has a traditional feel to it.  But at the same time, the Thunderbirds still feels very new.  It feels exciting, and brings a sense of optimism to the city, one this region's sports fans need after years of uncertainty, and a very frightening month of June.

In May and June, there was talk of the ECHL coming to Springfield.  There was real fear in the city that AHL hockey was gone, which could have ended a tradition dating back to 1926.  But when news of the Thunderbirds came, a second chance for Springfield came with it.  Well, a third, fourth, fifth and so on chance many people would probably tell you.

Now is the time for a renewed hope of keeping hockey alive and well in Springfield.  The Thunderbirds have all the right ingredients, marketing their mission of continuing the rich hockey tradition of Springfield, but still bringing something fresh to the city.  It is a tough task, but this franchise has done an incredible job pulling it off in an extremely short amount of time.  The future looks very, very bright for sports in Springfield.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  He also writes for Sports Business Boston.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Losing the Falcons: A sad, sad month for Springfield sports

By Zachary Baru

There is no way to sugarcoat it, this past month has been devastating for sports in Western Massachusetts.  Period.

Many will offer fond memories of the past, many will suggest that we were lucky enough to enjoy the ride while we could, and some will be optimistic for what lies ahead.  But there is one thing for sure, this region just suffered a major loss.  A loss for sport, a loss for the economy, and a loss for the history that we as a region have been so proud to witness and be a part of.

Whichever way you look at it, the fact remains that the moment the Springfield Falcons left for Arizona, a major part of this great city was lost.

Lost, but not forgotten.  And please, by no means, should this region's fans believe that this is the end for Springfield hockey.  The Western Massachusetts media market is prime location for a hockey team in terms of fans, youth participation and logistics.

The People

The number one thing Springfield fans should understand is that they should not blame themselves.  Springfield has dedicated, intelligent hockey fans.  People must remember that the American Hockey League of today is far different than the AHL of when the Falcons began in 1994.  The league has experienced tremendous growth, and with major media markets now receiving high attendances, the numbers Springfield has drawn in recent years simply are not enough.

If it was not for one man, the Falcons, without question, would have left many seasons ago.  That man is Bruce Landon, and the city of Springfield will always be in debt to him.  Truthfully, there is not enough that can be said for his efforts in keeping hockey in Springfield.  Western Massachusetts will always be grateful for his work, and will always remember what he has done for the region.  It is amazing how much one man has single-handedly helped not just hockey in Springfield, but our economy as well.

The Market

While the attendances of the last few seasons have not been at AHL levels, there still is a passionate fan base and following for hockey right here in Springfield.  There is no doubt that an ECHL franchise could succeed in Western Massachusetts, and very well may in the near future.

In terms of youth participation, the Greater Springfield area has no shortage of youth involved with hockey from all levels.  Youth involvement is key to success in professional sports, and allows Springfield the opportunity to stay in the running for a future franchise, whichever league that may be.

The Potential

Logistically speaking, Springfield is still a prime market for the AHL.  Springfield is central to many franchises, including Albany, Portland, Providence, Hartford and Bridgeport.  Even for games outside the division, Springfield's location makes travel easier.  Unlike many current AHL markets, especially Western franchises, a team playing in Springfield could save time and money on travel.

There is still one more factor about Springfield that should be discussed.  And that is passion.  No, not history, because as important and powerful as history is, good franchises do not depend and rely solely on history.  But passion on the other hand is special.  Passion is what separates good markets from bad, and will always be unmeasurable.  This is why Springfield should never, ever be counted out as a potential sports market.  This region loves sports, and this region loves hockey.  Never forget that, and never forget the potential that still remains, and will always be present right here in Springfield.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  He also writes for Sports Business Boston.

Monday, March 21, 2016

MIAA Basketball Championships a major victory for Springfield

By Zachary Baru

Eight champions may have been crowned in Springfield this past weekend, but you may just have to add one more to the list: the city itself.

As the MIAA Basketball Championships brought eight title games to the city between the MassMutual Center and Springfield College, the tournament brought along a flood of visitors to the Pioneer Valley from all across Massachusetts, making last weekend's championships a real success for the city of Springfield.

Between the players, team and school staff, families, fans, tournament officials, and the media, Springfield was the place to be for high school basketball this past weekend.  And for Springfield, a return of the state championships next year would be another major, major victory.

As visitors flocked to Springfield, it was the hotels, restaurants and retail shops that benefited the most.  And unlike other events that center around only one venue, the MIAA Championships spread the wealth around the city.  Both the MassMutual Center and Springfield College hosted four finals each, while the state finalist banquet was held at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The MIAA Basketball Championships were an excellent example of how an event can make an economic impact over multiple days and multiple sites throughout the city.  Hats off to the Western Massachusetts Sports Commission for bringing this statewide event to the Pioneer Valley.  One can only hope the MIAA makes a return to Springfield in the near future.

The case for a return of the MIAA Basketball Championships is simple.  The MassMutual Center's renovations last summer include a new center-hung video scoreboard and LED lighting.  And as for Springfield College, aside from its place in the history of the basketball as the game's birthplace, Blake Arena is the perfect, intimate setting for the sport.

This weekend was a win for eight teams.  It was a win for the MIAA.  But for Springfield, it was without a doubt a home run.  Let's hope the MIAA brings the championships back to Springfield sometime soon.  It is only right that in the state where basketball was born, the high school title is crowned in the city where it all began.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  He also writes for Sports Business Boston.