Atlantic City’s casinos are not alone in facing stiff competition from neighbors. Boardwalk Hall has seen the number of sporting events on its schedule dwindle over the past year, as tournaments and championships have moved to venues in neighboring states.
Just two years ago, the hall’s calendar was filled with sporting events, from mid-major college basketball championships to minor-league regular-season hockey games. Local fans could get excited to see high-level competition from potential future professional athletes.
However, those events are few on this year’s schedule. Atlantic City officials are looking to replace the Legends Classic, a four-team Thanksgiving basketball tournament; the Atlantic 10 men’s basketball championship, which is in its last year; and some type of minor-league hockey presence.
City officials said they believe the downturn is cyclical and that the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority continues to seek new sporting events and tournaments.
“The tournament stuff moves around,” said Greg Tesone, general manager of Boardwalk Hall. “(The Atlantic 10) ... had a good run here, and they chose to go to another city, which is not uncommon. We took it from another city. I don’t think that’s any negative for us. It ran its course here, and we’ll go out and look for something to replace it.”
The two-day American Hockey League All-Star Classic starts Sunday. The minor-league all-star showcase was a catch for Atlantic City: For the first time, the league selected a host city that does not have a team. But the all-star game is a one-year deal.
After seven years in Atlantic City, the Atlantic 10 will go to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., starting in 2013. The A-10 will play its final tournament at Boardwalk Hall March 9-11. The Barclays will seat 18,000 for basketball, compared with 10,820 at Boardwalk Hall.
The Legends Classic, which spent two years in Atlantic City, 2009 and 2010, spent a year at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, Bergen County, but announced in December it is now also headed to Brooklyn.
“The A-10 unfortunately left for the juggernaut of Brooklyn,” ACCVA President Jeffrey Vasser said. “They have been very aggressive financially going after events. What we need to do is continue to get quality events, but we need the support of the community. We can indeed support events like this.”
The A-10 arrived in Atlantic City in 2007, drawing an average of 5,416 fans in six sessions, including 6,747 for the championship game.
The high point of the tournament’s stay in Atlantic City was 2008, when Philadelphia teams Saint Joseph’s and Temple faced each other in the title game, attracting an event-record crowd of 10,116.
Starting with the 2009-10 season, the A-10 changed the tournament format so first-round games were played at the school with the higher seed. The quarterfinals, semifinals and title game were then played at Boardwalk Hall.
The change led to a spike in attendance numbers in Atlantic City, with an average of 6,883 in 2010 and 6,640 in 2011. However, despite drawing 8,285 for the semifinal round last year, the championship game between Richmond and Dayton attracted only 5,602 fans.
Officials are sure a tournament of this magnitude could excel again in Atlantic City and will continue to search for something similar. They expect the formation of the Atlantic City Alliance will help in that regard. The alliance is a nonprofit that will market the city with the backing of the casinos.
“I think we have a great future in sporting events,” Vasser said. “With the alliance by our side and supporting us, we are going to have a lot more muscle behind us.”
With the AHL All-Star Classic, the resort is getting the type of event that could do well. Because it is a showcase minor-league hockey event, there is more interest because most of the players could be in the NHL next season. It’s the type of event that appeals to locals as well as tourists outside the market.
Hockey has a mixed history in Atlantic City. The New Jersey Devils held five regular-season, minor-league games last season. The first game, on Dec. 5, 2010, featuring the AHL Albany Devils, drew 5,134. The next game, on Jan. 23, 2011, with the lower-division ECHL Trenton Devils, drew half that. The five games averaged an attendance of 3,480.
The Devils decided not to host additional games in Atlantic City this season.
The ECAC Division I men’s hockey final four also is at Boardwalk Hall in the second year of a three-year deal. It drew 3,742 on the first day and 4,126 for the championship in March.
“We have had successes and failures with most of the different sports we have done, which is to be expected,” Tesone said. “Nothing is going to work all the time. Also for minor-league hockey, we have had some good games and some bad games. It’s been kind of a mix for both.”
Professional sports teams have had their runs in Atlantic City. Basketball, hockey, football and baseball have all attempted to make Atlantic City their permanent home, but none has.
The Boardwalk Bullies, a minor-league hockey team, left in 2005. The Atlantic City Surf, an independent minor-league team, ceased operations in 2009. That left the city without a professional team.
“We’re still hopeful we can find a (hockey) tenant for Boardwalk Hall,” Vasser said. “I think the market has changed since when the Bullies were here last. I think there would be more support for the Bullies and maybe even for a baseball team.”
Even though the Surf didn’t work out in Atlantic City, at least two parties are trying to bring some form of baseball back to Sandcastle Stadium on Albany Avenue. Atlantic City had a baseball team in that facility for 11 seasons before the franchise disbanded.
Just because it didn’t work the first time doesn’t mean it can’t, former Surf General Manager Chris Carminucci said. Carminucci was the general manager when the Surf shut down operations but thinks Atlantic City is a viable host because of a passionate group of fans.
“I just think it hasn’t worked because it hasn’t been done well,” Carminucci said. “Whatever venue it is, it has to be brand new. It can’t be a revitalized venue. The people have to know this is new and we are going to do it right. When the city loses something, they don’t want to lose it again.”
Contact Susan Lulgjuraj: