AHL All-Star Classic Heads West To Celebrate Growing Fanbase

    • AHL takes the mid-season event to the Pacific Coast for the first time.
    • Greater Ontario Convention & Visitors Bureau expects an economic impact of $4.1 million.

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The AHL All-Star Classic will hit the west coast for the first time since the league’s major westward expansion in 2015, as the league hopes to give back to a growing region.

The event will be held on January 26 and 27 at the Toyota Arena in Ontario, California. Previously, the furthest west an AHL All-Star Game was held was in 2006 in Winnipeg.

“It’ll be terrific for Ontario, one of the best in terms of commitment to the business side of the game,” said Chris Nikolis, AHL executive vice president of business. “It’s certainly a positive step for us to have an event out west. Not that it needs it, with the last few years of success on the west coast, it doesn’t validate it, but it’s a nice opportunity to give fans support out there and bring an event to them.”

This article is part of an FOS series sponsored by From Now On to examine unique sporting events and how they engage the modern fan.

While the league is excited about further building out its presence in California, the city of Ontario expects the event to be an economic driver of sorts, with a projected economic impact of more than $4.1 million. Nikolis expects the arena to be filled as tends to be the track record for AHL All-Star Games, while the Greater Ontario Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates a crowd of 9,050 fans in the 10,000-seat arena.

“This is a fabulous opportunity to showcase our region and all of our amenities – over 6,000 hotel rooms, a shopper’s paradise, culturally diverse restaurants, and the ease of Ontario International Airport,” said Michael Krouse, the president and CEO of the Greater Ontario Convention & Visitors Bureau.  

Ontario, which is 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles and part of the Inland Empire metropolitan area, is approaching the AHL’s mid-season exhibition as a tourism boost. The Ontario International Airport even signed on to be the presenting sponsor.

The city’s team, the Ontario Reign, is taking a balanced approach to the event, hopeful it spurs excitement from the local fanbase and shows off the region’s positive attributes, said Steve Fraser, the Reign’s vice president of business operations.

“When you dig into all the details, all the different teams represented and board of governors, people are coming from across the U.S. and Canada, converging on Ontario, California,” Fraser said. “In addition, it’s a huge bonus for our base. Both of those facets, that’s additional revenue we wouldn’t have coming in otherwise.” 

The AHL has been active on social the week – and month – leading up to the event, showcasing the players making the game, the jerseys, and even highlighting former AHL All-Stars making the NHL All-Star Game, like St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington.

Fraser said attendance for the two All-Star events will be helped along by what is already the league’s largest season ticket member base, filling up nearly half the arena. 

Beyond the on-ice action, Fraser said the AHL All-Star events provide additional opportunities to give back to fans, like Sunday’s Fan Fest and having out a red carpet for the players – something that has been normally weather prohibited in previous AHL All-Star markets. The Fan Fest includes a variety of activities from food trucks and music to a vendor village and games.

The AHL All-Star Classic will air to national audiences in both Canada and the U.S., on TSN and NHL Network, respectively. Nikolis said the five hours of North American TV coverage is a great way to highlight the league’s best players and show hockey fans the quality of play – with more than 90% of AHL All-Stars historically making it to the NHL.

“At the forefront of it all, our players put on a great show,” he said.

The broadcasts are adding extra value for the local franchise as well, as Fraser said the Reign’s sponsorship team had experienced an uptick in revere from existing partners and interest from more regional and national brands excited about the prospect of U.S. and Canadian airtime.

Nikolis said the event is a pretty even split in terms of opportunities coming from the All-Star event for the host team and league, but the big draw does have its benefits for the team.

“When we leave on the 28th, we want everything better than before the event,” he said. “The business of the local franchise is hopefully in a better position with sponsors, local media, and fans.”