EVANSVILLE, IN — I’ve always viewed hockey fans as a family. The two are striking similar. There are lots of disagreements, we agree on even less, yet we always seem to stick up for our own. Or as the line from Animal House goes “they can’t do that to our pledges, only we can do that to our pledges.”
It is that sense of family that leads hockey fans to feel for each other during times of turmoil within an organization. The IceMen family is going through just such a time. The City of Evansville and the IceMen organization are at an impasse on the lease that is set to expire at the end of the season. Making matters worse, if hockey fans are family, the IceMen fans are your neurotic cousin.
News first broke in Evansville of an ongoing lease negotiation Monday night. IceMen owner Ron Geary went on Evansville’s ABC television affiliate and spoke in terms of a pending doomsday.
The City of Evansville has offered no signs of any such feelings on the matter. Evansville has been steadfast in their public statements that they fully expect a deal to be reached and are surprised by the IceMen’s plea for public support from the fan base.
I reached out numerous times to the City of Evansville for comment, but they shared with me Mayor Winnicke’s statement from Facebook. They added that the IceMen will be receiving a counter proposal tomorrow. Steve Schaefer, who is the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, indicated to me that Ron Geary knew last Friday the IceMen would receive a counter proposal Wednesday.
I reached out to the IceMen and spoke with Chief Operating Officer Jim Riggs. I asked him why the IceMen made the negotiations public.
“The benefit is making people aware. This isn’t something that we can just keep going on and on with,” Riggs said. “We started this back in February.”
I followed up and asked why the Mayor’s office has publicly made various statements that they are confident the deal will get done.
Riggs said, “We could share the same idea if we had seen anything or had some sort of preliminary proposal…my point is we have seen absolutely nothing.”
During the interview I linked above, Geary mentioned the Orlando Solar Bears and the Amway Center. The Amway Center was opened in 2010 and is shared by the Solar Bears, Orlando Predators (Arena Football), and the Orlando Magic (NBA).
The IceMen state the annual lease has been $650,000 while the median lease expense for an ECHL team is $152,000. The Sin Bin has been unable to independently confirm this claim as teams are not required to release that information. Additionally, the knowledge that the Ford Center is a new facility that opened in 2011 must be a factor in the lease cost, but according to Riggs, the team is paying a couple hundred thousand dollars more than Orlando does to play in an NBA level arena.
I reached out to the Orlando Solar Bears to inquire about their lease and have not heard back as of the time this was written. I asked Riggs about what Orlando pays. “The league doesn’t allow us to give that information out. The league provided us with that months ago,” Riggs said. “It was a shocking figure…they pay a significant and I mean significant, they pay a couple hundred thousand less in rent.”
According to the ECHL website, the IceMen averaged over 5,000 in attendance last season and are averaging 5,702 per game this year, which makes Evansville a top ten market within the ECHL. The IceMen had attendance of 180,688 last season. I know every ticket isn’t paid for but assuming only 150,000 were paid tickets at an average price of $15 per ticket, that’s $2.25 million dollars the IceMen took in for ticket sales. Granted, this is pure speculation and I have never seen the operating budget for an ECHL team, but that’s not small change. Factoring in merchandise, the 10% the IceMen receive on alcohol sales, and various other sources of income, I’d estimate the IceMen operating budget to be roughly $3 million dollars per year.
If that is indeed the case, that would appear to be a significant premium the IceMen are paying for the Ford Center.
Much has been made of the December 1 deadline in which teams have to submit 60 dates in which they can play their next season home games. The IceMen have portrayed that as the doomsday date. I asked Riggs if there is any mechanism for an extension of that date.
“It’s a hard and fast rule. If we’re down to the nitty gritty, and we’re not there yet, I would assume Ron or myself would have to go on a conference call with the other governors and ask for a 48-hour extension,” Riggs said. “We don’t know what the penalty would be so we’ve been operating from day 1 that December 1st we better have 60 dates to the ECHL office.”
I asked Riggs to clarify, if no deal is reached, what happens.
“He (Geary) has absolutely no intention of moving the team anywhere else. He believes in the Evansville market, certainly the Evansville market has shown to us they’re unbelievably supportive. We would love nothing more than to get through this and finally get this team into the playoffs this year.”
Riggs reiterated to me that if no deal is reached, owner Ron Geary would seek to put the team on suspension for the 2016-17 season while a deal was negotiated for the following year at the Ford Center. Suspension at this point, has to be viewed as the nuclear option.
Let’s put all of this in perspective. Do I believe a deal will be reached that keeps the IceMen functioning in Evansville and at the Ford Center? Yes I do. If the figures Geary cited are accurate, then the city makes roughly $1.2 million dollars off the team. That’s plenty of motivation for the city.
I also believe there is some benefit to Mr. Geary in keeping the team going, otherwise he would have suspended operations years ago. He’s a businessman and shared with me prior to the season he had no ties to hockey prior to buying the team. This must make some sense to him personally or have some financial benefit. Everyone is winning from this relationship.
Everyone, except for the team, they’re still under .500.