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ECHL in 'good shape' now, says McKenna

by Brian Compton

"We have an interest in returning to several markets. Richmond has had a team in the Southern Professional (Hockey) League for several years, but it's a market that's of interest. Other markets like Greensboro and Greenville, we're having discussions as we speak about the possibility of going back into some of those places. But history dictates that when we do it properly, we have a very high-percentage chance of succeeding for the longer term."
-- ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna

After already losing the Augusta Lynx and Fresno Falcons during the 2008-09 campaign, the ECHL was hit with more bad news this week when it announced that the Dayton Bombers, Mississippi Sea Wolves and Phoenix RoadRunners would not be returning next season.

With the Toledo Walleye being the only new team for next season, the ECHL will have just 19 teams in 2009-10. Toledo will join the North Division (which could be renamed), along with Elmira, Johnstown, Wheeling and Cincinnati. Both Trenton and Reading will join a division that will also consist of Charlotte, South Carolina, Gwinnett and Florida.

The teams in the National Conference will have just four teams in each division. The West consists of Alaska, Idaho, Utah and Victoria, while the Pacific features Bakersfield, Ontario, Las Vegas and Stockton.

To get a better feel of the current state of the ECHL, landed an exclusive interview with ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna. Were you blindsided by any of these teams’ departures, or were you fully aware that this was going to happen?
McKenna: Not at all. We had known for a period of weeks, if not months about what was going on. There were efforts in all situations to look at alternatives, whether it was finding new ownership or different solutions. We weren’t blindsided. Our efforts are trying to get in front of this so there is balance in our league and our teams have a chance to be successful. It’s been a testing two or three months, but we’re trying to get out in front of it and deal with it. At this point, we feel good going into the summer. The product on the ice is good. How much of a role did our struggling economy play in the demise of these teams?

McKenna: It played a role, but it wasn’t the determining factor. I think the economy was enough to push them over the cliff. If you’ve got owners who have a primary business that isn’t hockey and it’s going bad, then that leaves less time, energy and resources for them to put into a secondary business, in this case owning a minor-league hockey club. In Augusta and Fresno, that was the critical issue. In these cases, it wasn’t that, it was just not being able to make it work. These are difficult times. I think you’re going to see more fallout in other leagues across minor-league hockey over the offseason and probably over the next 12-18 months. It’s unfortunate. Do you anticipate any more teams being unable to return for next season?

McKenna: No. I think we’re in good shape here now. There will always be challenges. We certainly have fewer challenges now than we did this time last year. The teams that do a good job of marketing their product, they have a strong staff and a strong base of season tickets and sponsorships. They work hard at keeping the product viable and they continue to do fine. Was the writing on the wall for Mississippi once Texas and Augusta couldn’t continue?

McKenna: That played a role, but they were also just never able to fully recover from Hurricane Katrina. Even though it’s now years ago (since the storm), the redevelopment just hasn’t occurred the way people had hoped. I give ownership there a lot of credit. They made their best effort to make it work. What played the biggest role in Dayton’s decision to leave the league after 18 years?

McKenna: It had been a struggle there for a while. Ownership certainly put forth a valiant effort. At the end of the day, we had struggled there for some time. We still believe in the market. We hope at some point to be back in there, but it has to be the right business plan and the right ownership group and we have to have the right about of time in order for it to have an opportunity to succeed. We’ll look over the next 12 to 18 months to see if we can get back in there. With the addition of Toledo, couldn’t Dayton have survived at least another season? It would have been a huge help in terms of travel costs, right?

McKenna:  That’s one of the misconceptions. When you lose a rival, travel certainly does have an impact. If you lose a rival and now you’ve got an overnight trip instead of a day trip, it does increase your costs. But travel costs make up about 8.5 percent of a team’s budget. While those costs have edged up, we do not require east-west travel during the regular season. We don’t have teams going across the country other than the Kelly Cup Finals. In the east, we’re still basically a bus league. It’s more about driving ticket revenues and making sure that the fans are aware that it’s still affordable. We have to find fresh and new ways to keep people interested. Was it simply too much for the Phoenix franchise to compete with the Coyotes?

McKenna: They were in it for different reasons right from the beginning. Legacy Sports were great partners from the time they were in the league and we appreciate having had the opportunity to work with them. But I think a lot of it had to do with filling the dates and providing inventory for their suite holders as opposed to some of the normal reasons for being involved in minor-league sports. They just wanted to put all their time and energy towards their core product, which is the basketball team. While we’re disappointed in that, we understand. Will Trenton and Reading still have a chance to face rivals such as Johnstown and Wheeling, or will they now have to make several trips to places like Gwinnett and Florida?

McKenna: Our objective for years has been to make sure our teams play their biggest rivals. Trenton will still play the Johnstowns and Elmiras, as well. I suspect teams from the North that go down to Florida will make one trip and play two or three games. Florida is most impacted by this. They will have two or three trips to the North. Trenton and Reading are basically the same distance from Charlotte and South Carolina as they are from Cincinnati and Toledo. Any interest in putting a franchise back in Richmond just to help ease the travel for some of these teams?

McKenna: We have an interest in returning to several markets. Richmond has had a team in the Southern Professional (Hockey) League for several years, but it's a market that's of interest. Other markets like Greensboro and Greenville, we're having discussions as we speak about the possibility of going back into some of those places. But history dictates that when we do it properly, we have a very high-percentage chance of succeeding for the longer term. We need a year’s time to do it right. We don’t want to rush anything. The emphasis is on long-term success. We’re also looking at other things like flexibility on our expansion fee. We’re more focused on teams spending their money on the start-up instead of spending it on the expansion fee.
What’s the latest on the situations in Myrtle Beach and Columbia? Do you anticipate having franchises there anytime soon?

McKenna: Still awaiting news on the new buildings, both in Myrtle Beach and Columbia. We’ll expect an update from both hopefully, if not before, the June meetings. Myrtle Beach has been a frustrating one. There’s been funding in place, but between the university and developers, those folks haven’t been able to get a building coming out of the ground. We’re interested in both of those markets for the future. But under the current economic situation, I think funding for new facilities is going to be much more difficult. How about in Sarasota? Is that any closer?

McKenna: Right now, it’s tied up in bankruptcy court. It has nothing to do with the team. We pulled the team out of there a couple of years ago, but the developer and the land owner and the construction company are trying to sort through things. If and when that gets straightened out, it’s still a market that we’d be interested in. That would be a huge help for a team like Florida, right?

McKenna: It sure would. This is nothing new to them. Really since they’ve been in the league, they’ve kind of been out there on an island. But they’ve always managed to run a great operation. If we could get a rival or two for them, that would do nothing but enhance their situation. Any plans to try again in cities such as Long Beach or San Diego?

McKenna: Long Beach is not on the horizon. We would look in the West. We’d still like to add a team in the Pacific Northwest at some point. Other markets like San Diego, Reno, Fresno … we still have interest. But again, we have to make sure that it’s done properly. Do you foresee more NHL teams purchasing teams in your league, like the New Jersey Devils did in Trenton?

McKenna: We’re seeing increased level of affiliation, but we haven’t seen other teams step forward. We’ve had some teams show interest and have discussions. There’s nothing firm at this point. Whether that changes in the future, I don’t know. We’re certainly open minded.

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