The Cow Palace is a weird place.
Built in 1941 just outside of San Francisco city limits, the Cow Palace has hosted the Grand National Rodeo, Horse & Stock Show since then. Black and white photos line several walls with pictures of a different white man with a chiseled jaw in a cowboy hat for each year, presumably the host of that year's rodeo.
According to the Cow Palace website, "The idea for what was to become the Cow Palace was born at the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. When the fair's huge livestock exposition proved to be one of its most popular attractions, local business leaders met and resolved to build a permanent structure to house a great animal livestock exposition in San Francisco."
The result is a permanent home for the Grand National Rodeo and a destination event for those around the nation.
Aside from the livestock events, the Cow Palace was the premier entertainment venue in the Bay Area for decades. Some of the events include the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, the Golden Gate Kennel Club, Barnum and Bailey Circus, WWF matches, as well as concerts from The Beatles, The Who, Nirvana, Prince, U2, and many more. Though most of the music acts now go through the more modern arenas, the Cow Palace has still hosted Metallica, deadmau5, and Slayer in recent years. Many of the events have been photographed and are on display throughout the arena.
Notably, the Cow Palace was home to the San Francisco Warriors prior to them moving to Oracle Arena and updating their moniker to "Golden State." In fact, during the Warriors only championship year on the west coast (1974-75), two of the NBA Finals games against the Washington Bullets were held at the Cow Palace because of a scheduling conflict at the then, Oakland Coliseum Arena. Apparently there wasn't a whole lot of confidence in Rick Barry and his bunch.
Hockey first showed up at the Cow Palace in the form of the San Francisco Seals of the WHL. They played their home games there from 1961 to 1967, when the team transitioned to the NHL. The powers at be determined the arena unsuitable for an NHL franchise.
The San Francisco Shamrocks of the PHL lasted only a season and half in the late 1970s. The team used the name of the former WHL franchise that played at the Winterland Arena (since torn down and replaced with apartments) at the corner of Post and Steiner Streets. An otherwise forgettable era is saved by a fabulous logo.
Deemed unsuitable for NHL action in the early 1960s, the San Jose Sharks played their first 2 seasons at the Cow Palace prior to HP Pavilion being built. Their time at the Cow Palace is remembered by their epic 71 loss season, an NHL record.
The San Francisco Spiders of the IHL spent one year (1995-96) at the Cow Palace, highlighted by the play of NHL great Sandis Ozolinsh.
The ECHL's San Francisco Bulls began play at the Cow Palace for the 2012-13 season. Bulls ownership spent $2 million on renovations to the facility to more modernize the 70-year-old arena.
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The Cow Palace provides the typical food you'd expect, although prices are bit high for minor-league hockey. Slices of pizza are $5.50 and domestic drafts are $8.50. There are also hot dogs, corn dogs, popcorn, and mozzarella sticks. Craft beer options include San Francisco's own Anchor Steam.
The Round-Up Bar & Grill is a good restaurant option that offers hand-carved roast turkey or beef brisket sandwiches ($9), chicken tenders basket with fries ($9.50), Sheboygan bratwurst ($8). Drinks include coffee and cocoa ($3), bottled soft drinks and water ($4.25) and bottled beer. Mixed drinks and wine are also available at Round-Up.
It's hard to explain why this place is strange. Maybe it's the curtains that hang from the ceiling that look like they belong in a moose lodge and if you were to ruffle them, 7 decades of dust and history would fall to the floor. Maybe it's that the most expensive seats in the barn are the worst as they are rows of folding chairs at ice-level with limited views. Maybe it's the painted on pillars on the exterior of the building, above the entrance. Maybe it was the slow drip from a leaky roof into a caution-taped-off section. The place is somewhat endearing and all-together strange.
I'd say that the PA announcer was louder than the system could handle. He also spoke (yelled?) during play, often with the "c'mon Bulls!" refrain.
On the positive side I loved the old scoreboard with the familiar Cow Palace script on it and all the old soda company signs. The scoreboard wasn't used because there is a more than suitable four-sided video board above center ice.
The seats were actually quite comfortable, with nice cushions even for the cheap seats. They reminded me of an old movie theater where the mechanism for some of the seats doesn't work on a few of them and you'd have to manually pull the seat up to get by.
The ice girls squad is collectively known as the Cow Belles and the mascot's name is Rawhide. I do appreciate that the organization seems to have started with a historic venue and created monikers from that.
I have to point out the terrible slogan that they've been using in ads on the Internet and radio that in my opinion, appeals to the lowest common denominator, "San Francisco Bulls Tickets: Act Like You've Got A Pair!"
The Cow Palace sits just south of two of the less affluent San Francisco neighborhoods: The Excelsior and Visitacion Valley. Mostly residential, they are not known to be the safest neighborhoods. I've never had any issues but it is important to note for potential visitors. The Cow Palace is about 2 miles west of Candlestick Park.
Though there isn't much beyond fast food and gas stations in the immediate neighborhood, with a little planning you can grab a good, inexpensive meal before heading to the game. Out along Mission St or Ocean Ave in the Excelsior you can find lots of good Mexican and Asian restaurants. They are within a few miles of the arena. They are quite good and less expensive than similar restaurants farther toward the center of San Francisco.
A great place to stop by is the historic 7 Mile House. Established in 1853, they boast a "unique mix of Italian/American/Filipino food." They have lots of old pictures of the restaurant as well as extensive Giants memorabilia and plenty of TVs. Technically in the city of Brisbane, it's less than a mile from the Cow Palace at Geneva Ave and Bayshore Blvd.
In their first year of existence it is hard to know how the fans truly measure up. Attendance started off strong with the first game selling out. Since then, attendance has quickly dwindled. At the game I went to, the Palace was 20-25% full.
Going into the season I thought minor-league hockey would be a tough draw in a big city. My only other exposure to this level of hockey has been the Stockton Thunder and they don't seem to have attendance issues. It seems to be better suited in smaller towns where it is likely easier to become part of the fabric of that particular city.
That being said, those in attendance were engaged with the action and rooting on the Bulls. There were a lot of kids at the game with their families as well as many young adults looking for a night out. I appreciated seeing a lot of Sharks gear in the stands and the ovation current-Shark Ryane Clowe got as he is serving as an assistant coach on the bench during the NHL lockout. Extra point for the guy wearing a San Francisco Spiders jersey.
Unfortunately San Francisco is home to one of the worst sports traditions: the plush panda hats worn at Giants games. The Bulls embraced/exploited this love of wearing teddy bears on heads by creating their own black and orange plush Bull for fans to buy.
The Cow Palace is pretty easily accessible via both the 280 and 101 freeways. The only issue is that many of their games are scheduled during rush hours so be sure to leave yourself plenty of time if that's the case. Geneva Ave has plenty of lanes near the arena so getting into the parking lot is smooth.
The two most common ways for people outside of San Francisco to get into the city is via BART or Caltrain. The nearest Caltrain station is the Bayshore Station. From there you can grab a 9-San Bruno SF MUNI bus that takes you down Geneva Ave. The nearest BART station is at Balboa Park where riders can board the 8-Bayshore bus.
If traveling from within the city the MUNI light rail T train is an option as well. Anytime you take an SF bus or train, plan for delays and hope for the best.
Seeing as how the Round-Up Bar & Grill is popular and it is set out of the way as its own stand alone restaurant, there is little congestion in the concourse. Lines move quickly at well-staffed concession stands and the restrooms have plenty of stations.
All in all, it is far more easily accessible than its neighbor, Candlestick Park.
Tickets started at $14.50 for the Friday night game I attended. It does seem they do some dynamic pricing for mid-week games as well. I strongly suggest you do not purchase the most expensive tickets because the viewing experience is terrible.
Parking is $10 for the general lot which is a bit of a trek and $15 for the closer proffered lot. Since you're looking at $25 before getting to your seat, I'd recommend eating before entering as the food/drinks are expensive and aren't as good as what you can find elsewhere.
The return on investment gets an extra point as the publicity department does a good job on social media pointing out deals and promotions such as 2-for-1 beers on "Thirsty Thursdays." I've also recently seen deals on websites like Groupon and Living Social.
Extra points for the photos of all the great concerts that have come through the Cow Palace as well as the old memorabilia of the previous hockey teams to call the venue home.
The Bulls also do the popular "chuck-a-puck" promotion and other games thought the evening.
The Cow Palace is one of those places that people from the Bay Area have a soft spot in their heart for but is otherwise unremarkable. Whether it was a boat show you went to with your father or watching the Warriors play in the finals there, the Cow Palace is woven into the fabric of the community's memory, for better and worse.
The Cow Palace is one of the nation's great old venues but it is not suitable for hockey in a city like San Francisco. Parking is $10, or you can take BART and a free shuttle. There were maybe 1,000 fans at the game I attended, a sad turnout on a Friday evening. But there are few good seats and as the review notes, the expensive ones are not nice at all. The team is not very good either. ECHL hockey works better in small towns like Stockton and I don't expect the Bulls to be here much longer.
5145 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94112
5300 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94112
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