WICHITA, Kan. – It has been a little more than two weeks since the news was announced that the Quad City Mallards would give up their ECHL membership for 2018-19 and cease operations at the end of the season. Current Mallards owner Jordan Melville cited a loss of passion and life changes as the reasons for the franchise going dark.
“I love the sport, I love everything about it but at some point, the passion for me has been lost,” Melville told Bobby Metcalf of the Quad-City Times. “Not because of the market, not because of the team, not because of the league, just because of the way life worked out.
“There’s no guarantees in business, just as there’s no guarantees in sports. Sometimes you just have to give up.”
Immediately after the announcement, TaxSlayer Center Executive Director Scott Mullen began the search for replacing the Mallards’ 36 home dates at the venue in 2018-19.
Since then, there have been many scenarios rolled out regarding the future of the Mallards franchise. Do they go to the junior route (USHL or NAHL,) go dark for a year or two and reapply for membership to the ECHL with different ownership and name, or do they join the SPHL and start play in a little over six months?
According to Metcalf, the junior route the least likely option, which makes sense. Both the USHL & NAHL are somewhat saturated market-wise and adding the Quad Cities market to that mix may water down the product even further. That said, there is some interest for the USHL to move into the market.
The next option is one that should make the most sense. With it comes no hockey in the market for a year or two and the new owner would treat it as an expansion franchise; getting staff out to every event imaginable, shaking hands with local business leaders and building the franchise with a grassroots effort. There have been several ECHL markets where this has been done recently; with Worcester having the most significant success. Also with this option, the “Mallards” name and logo would go away, and the new team would be completely rebranded.
Then there is the third option; the one Mullen appears hell-bent on making happen: going down to the SPHL and playing in October for the sake of filling empty dates on the TaxSlayer Center’s calendar. We saw something similar to this happen in Evansville after the lease debacle with Ron Geary. After the Icemen owner announced he was leaving town, an ownership group was hastily thrown together, leaving the new SPHL franchise struggling to gain traction in the market.
Despite the lease controversy which ultimately ended the Icemen’s residency at Ford Center, the Icemen still averaged 4,043 in their final ECHL season. In their inaugural Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) season with all of seven months to develop their brand and audience in the area, the Thunderbolts averaged 2,281, good for sixth in the league. This season, the Thunderbolts rank dead last in the SPHL in attendance with an average of 2,278 per game (through 26 of 28 home games). Over the course of three years, attendance of hockey games in Evansville has fallen by 44.7%.
On the flip side, Roanoke joined the SPHL as an expansion franchise with over a year to develop their brand and audience through a grassroots campaign. Though they finished with the second-worst record in the league one season ago, Roanoke finished fifth in the league in attendance, averaging 3,136 per game. This year, the Rail Yard Dawgs are fighting for a playoff spot and attendance has improved, with an average of 3,289 fans going through the turnstiles each game night.
When Melville bought the Mallards in 2013, the average attendance was 3,811. After four straight playoff runs in the Central Hockey League and ECHL, attendance slipped to an average of 3,301 this season.
Attendance is just one of the factors that should be considered by Mullen and his team as they move forward. Another is the style of play.
The SPHL has changed considerably in the last five years. The SPHL game, when played at it’s highest level, is on par with some mid-pack ECHL teams. Overall, the SPHL game is a tad slower, and a bit more choppy in the flow of play, but does feature some good goaltending.
This season, fighting is down to a league-low and there have been a record number of players are getting calls up to the ECHL. The SPHL is quickly gaining a reputation as a league that wants to develop players and moves them up to the next level, so it’s not likely that an SPHL franchise in the Quad Cities will have players who lay down their roots and play there for several years. Will that be enough to retain Mallards fans from the ECHL to the SPHL?
As a business, the SPHL’s model is far cheaper than the ECHL’s and this is likely the leading consideration for those involved in the decision-making process. For starters, there are fewer roster spots to pay for and a veteran limit based on games played. Overall, the league season is considerably shorter, with the Presidents’ Cup Finals ending in early May, as opposed to mid-June in the ECHL. With a new, player-friendly Collective Bargaining Agreement coming online June 1, the cost of owning and operating an ECHL franchise is likely to go up.
Out of all that, two crucial questions need answering: One, what makes Mullen think that attendance will improve with the Mallards in the SPHL versus the ECHL? More importantly, is the new franchise there just to fill dates and what model do they have to be successful?
With the future of hockey in the Quad Cities firmly in Mullen’s hands, the decision on what to do going forward will have ramifications for years to come.
If the SPHL fails in the Quad Cities, then professional hockey for all intents and purposes, is done for a very long time. If the SPHL is a success, it could join Peoria and Evansville as solid northern options for the league.
Time will tell, of course, but one thing is for sure: the fans, business partners, and other stakeholders deserve proper due diligence to see what the appropriate course forward is, as opposed to a resolution that is rushed for the sake of getting dates on a calendar.