The Sorta Cautionary Tale Of The Houston Aeros

Houston vs. Oklahoma City Barons 10-26-12
Are the Aeros done in Houston? Photo by Rob Ferguson.

A cautionary tale, purely by definition, causes the hearer to understand great and imminent danger. It almost always comes in three acts. First, the danger is presented. Second, the dialogue is spun around the events of that danger. Third, it ends badly for the characters involved. It’s not light-hearted folklore, but rather over-aggressive caution meant to spurn someone or something to not repeat a devastating past. How the tale is told is not the key component, but rather how the hearer chooses to react. This is why cautionary tales were created in the first place.

For weeks now, the Houston Aeros have been in constant “discussions” with the Houston Rockets over a new lease agreement for the Toyota Center. This, is where the Aeros currently reside. Their deal ends as soon as the Aeros end their season. For 19 years, the Aeros have made Houston their home. It appears that a round 20 might not happen, and it may be a direct result of the team having no place to play.

First to breach the subject was a group of writers from the Houston Chronicle. In that piece, they briefly mentioned where the talks currently reside, and also rounded up quotes from people that say things without actually saying things.

Rockets CEO Tad Brown said of the Aeros, “We’re still in discussions – the preliminary stage. Nothing to report.”

When the Aeros previous lease expired in 2008, a new one wasn’t agreed on until days after the regular season ended, so there is time. The Aeros season ends in April (unless they make the playoffs.) But if there is no lease with Toyota Center, options for other venues in Houston are limited.

“We’re still talking,” said Jim Mill, general manager of the Aeros.

So there’s still time to get a deal done. That’s good new for fans of minor league hockey in Houston. However, there’s another piece to the puzzle.

Reliant Arena had been discussed briefly but doesn’t appear to be an option.

Mark Miller, general manager of Reliant Park, said discussions with the Aeros “weren’t very advanced at all,” in part because Reliant Arena does not have an ice surface and providing one would have cost about $3 million and in part because the ceiling is only 38 feet above the floor. Also, the long-term master plan for Reliant Park calls for the arena to be replaced when funding is available; that building, he said, would have ice-making capabilities.

“To retrofit a building with ice is expensive, and it is not a good business decision to do at this time,” he said. He added that putting in a scoreboard “doesn’t make a lot of sense” because of the low ceiling.

Miller said cooling towers and some other ice making equipment could be salvaged for a new building if it were installed in the old arena but that “it’s hard to justify the investment” in a new arena floor for the old building.

It appears, at least on paper, that the Houston Aeros have no bargaining chip. It’s either work out a deal, convince the building’s managers that this is the right thing to do, or move the team elsewhere. And perhaps that means to another city.

The Third Intermission blog, which covers the Houston Aeros, sees the reports, understands the financial situation, and paints an ugly picture.

In the summer, I thought there was an 80 percent chance the Aeros would stay, then it went down to 70 around training camp. When we got past Thanksgiving, my faith dropped to 60 percent. Now, I am afraid the Aeros will be forced out of Houston. I think there is only a 20-percent chance the Aeros (as an affiliate of the Minnesota Wild) sign another multi-year lease agreement with the Toyota Center.

I really do think the Wild wants to keep them here, but as we’ve said on this blog several times before … it has to make sense financially. And I don’t think it does any more.

But there’s more. A follow up piece in the Houston Chronicle takes us further down the rabbit hole.

So, if no new deal is reached between the Aeros and the Rockets, the team will likely be forced to move to another city.

“At Toyota, it’s one of those things where I think the Rockets would love to have them stay, but they have a business model,” said Janis Schmees, the executive director of the sports authority. “They are turning away concerts and have to make sure when they are turning business away that they can accommodate the Aeros and make it worthwhile financially.”

“They have a business and we have a business, and everybody’s got their own interests and that’s why the process continues, and we’re in the middle of that process,” Aeros general manager Jim Mill said. “We’re still talking, and that’s about the only update I can give you.”

Cities and businesses that are housed within their limits want to make the most of opportunities for dollars. This is happening everywhere. Ironically, the Houston Aeros have decent attendance numbers that have increased in recent years. They are currently in the top ten in the American League. This isn’t about attendance (not entirely) or team success, this is about making the most money. That’s a tough pill to swallow if you’re a Houston hockey fan.

Oklahoma City, which has far worse attendance numbers, has been publicly questioned by those outside of the city in terms of the number of people that attend games. Ownership claims everything is fine, but the biggest dog in a fight over arena leases is the city. How much can the city make? Are they getting the highest bang for their buck? Does a bi-monthly concerts, business conferences, and live children’s events garnish a higher wage? All questions worth asking, and all questions being asked in Houston.

Thus the cautionary tale begins. Watch how this one goes down. And don’t think it couldn’t happen in Oklahoma City.