ORLANDO, FL – For months, rumors and unsubstantiated speculation have swirled around the Orlando Solar Bears, like a bitter wind on the icy planet of Hoth.
Season ticket renewals, which normally occur at the end of January, were delayed until April. Social media was filled with various people who claimed to be “in the know” offering up conflicting stories about the club’s future. Some faithful fans were beginning to believe that the power of the Dark Side might actually be plotting doom for professional hockey in central Florida.
On the eve of Star Wars Day, however, the Force was strong with the Solar Bears. That was when the ECHL made it official that the franchise would be sold to the DeVos family and the Orlando Magic. The move guarantees that hockey will stay in Orlando for the 2017-18 campaign…and potentially for much longer.
For most ECHL teams, the attendance numbers of the Orlando Solar Bears are enviable. Last year, the club was fourth in the league with a 5498 crowd on average (compared to an overall average of 4252 for the ECHL). From appearances, the sponsorship situation of the team also seemed to be in good shape, with ice of the ARS.com rink bursting with advertisements. But the attendance figure represents a nearly 12 percent drop from 2015-16, and after one year at the ownership helm, Joe Haleski decided in March that he either needed to sell the club or to pack up his X-wing starfighters.
Much deserved kudos have been passed on to Haleski, who found himself thrown into the breach when Jason Siegel, the former President and CEO of the club, stepped down last year. By an odd coincidence that announcement also occurred on the eve of Star Wars Day. The ways of the Force are indeed strange. Haleski has earned a place in Solar Bears history as a hero who kept the club together during a difficult time of transition.
From a financial standpoint, the Amway Center has been a double-edged light saber for the Solar Bears. On the one hand, it is a premier venue, featuring close-to-the-action sky boxes, a booming sound system, and a high definition jumbotron. Those types of features draw the fans, but they also come at a hefty price. The initial lease signed by the Solar Bears in 2011 set the fee at $25,000 per game for the lower bowl and first suite level. No doubt the current actual fee is higher, especially when you add the cost of the ice plant, personnel, and associated maintenance costs. The bottom line is that the Solar Bears need to fill lots of seats and to get sponsors to stay above water.
The sale to the DeVos family and the Orlando Magic makes sense on many levels. For one, it will allow some cost-saving opportunities. The club currently practices at the RDV Sportsplex Ice Den, which coincidentally, is owned by Richard DeVos. Also, there are some areas, such as data technology and media production, where the Solar Bears and Magic might productively combine forces and cut expenses.
The Solar Bears also bring some valuable assets to the table for its new owners. The Orlando Magic is in the process of building a $200 million entertainment complex outside of the Amway Center, and that venture will benefit from having the regular line of Solar Bears faithful showing up.
Another plus for the DeVos family and Magic is that the Solar Bears are virtually a turnkey operation. They have a solid front office and hockey operations staff currently in place. With a playoff drive that involved taking the Everblades to the distance in the opening round, the Solar Bears have a positive trajectory. One would imagine that the association with a major league team like the Orlando Magic will pay some dividends in terms of recruitment, which could give a further boost to the team.
It won’t hurt that the DeVos family has hockey ownership experience. It was the DeVos family which owned the IHL (International Hockey League) Orlando Solar Bears from 1995-2001. The fact that the team won the IHL’s Turner Cup in the final year of that league’s existence has some fans dreaming of a title on the horizon.
The financial strength of the DeVos family and Orlando Magic are going to benefit the Solar Bears. Consider these figures. A mid-level Orlando Magic player makes about $4 million per year. That comes out to about $148,000 in a week if you divided it into a standard 27-week ECHL season. (Keep in mind that ECHL players do not get paid in the offseason.) The ECHL salary cap for 2016-17 was $12,600 for a team. That is, you could bankroll just under 12 full player squads—practically an entire conference—in the ECHL for the salary of an average NBA player.
But the DeVos family and the Orlando Magic would do well to be cautious and sober in this new-old venture. One danger of the Amway Center and Orlando Magic connection is that controlling powers will start to treat the Solar Bears like they are something other than a minor league hockey club.
Most fans show up for an ECHL game because it offers a remarkable entertainment value. At the end of last year, the Solar Bears worked with sponsors Michael T. Gibson (a local auto justice attorney) and Coors Light so that fans could purchase tickets as low as $10 for the final months and into the playoffs. That meant a family of four could both pay for parking and get an exciting show for $50. If the DeVos family and the Orlando Magic can find a way to maintain those types of ticket prices, they should be able to grow the fan base.
Some have pointed to the lackluster recent performance of the Orlando Magic as a point of concern, but the future at this point looks more bright than bleak. The Solar Bears’ attendance has been down this season, but there are signs that those numbers are rebounding. Orlando ranks second in average playoff attendance, and it is only one of two clubs in the league (the other team being the Allen Americans) who has been able to draw in more fans for the playoffs than in the regular season. Average attendance was up by 800 over the regular season when the Solar Bears played their three home games against the Florida Everblades in the division semifinals. The city is clearly hungry to show up for a team that can win on home ice, and it will especially turn out for weekend games. With some prudent advertising, the club should be able to keep the rebound moving.
There has been speculation on the street that the Solar Bears could change their affiliation to be with the Grand Rapids Griffins, the AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. While it is true that Dan DeVos has majority ownership of the Griffins, I see the change in affiliates as highly unlikely. The Orlando affiliation with the Toronto Marlies is strong and mature, as is the Toledo Walleye – Grand Rapids affiliation. Changing the affiliations would be a hasty decision that would have disruptive consequences for all the clubs and would likely not come until after the 2017-18 season.
One would also expect the new owners to resist the urge to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the Solar Bears’ operations. Come October, I predict that the casual fan will see few visible signs of the ownership change. The DeVos family and Orlando Magic should preserve the club’s front office and operations staff in its current form, and I expect that the Solar Bears and the Magic will keep the key aspects of management, operations, communications, and fan relations separate.
While this is the Everything Changes Hockey League, where nothing is guaranteed, I don’t foresee any drastic overhaul in store for the club on the front office or operations levels. Team Sin Bin will be alert to any changes that do transpire during offseason, and we will give you a complete breakdown of how the team is shaping up as October approaches and the Jedi masters of the Solar Bears return to battle the Galactic Empire.
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