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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.

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  1. Matt, well written and thoughtful. You touched on a number of good points. Points that we have both witnessed over the years of new owner(s) failing to adhere to. You would think, going back to the late 80’s that lessons would be learned about starting and running minor league hockey franchises. Seems the same mistakes keep getting made. Im sure that wont change going forward. A lot of failed franchised started with knee jerk reactions. Being from Fort Wayne, we are blessed, truly blessed, with the stewardship we have. The Frankes should write a book about how to do it and it should be the first thing any prospective franchise owner(s) should read. We went from a league( the old IHL ) that in many ways may have a been a little stronger( talent wise) than the AHL back in the 90’s, to a AA regional league( CoHL/UHL circa 2000) without much more than a hiccup. Fans adjusted because we had tradition. I do not think Quad City has that. I think Quad City would be best served if they wait until they can get another ECHL team in. Be it 2 years. Based on the attendance and money bleeding some of the ECHL teams have right now, that cost may be cheap.
    With Colorado leaving, St Johns being added, the PHPA changes, all costs will be going up( travel!!!!) Those things killed the old IHL, Your podcast about regional leagues may be coming sooner than later.

  2. No Mention of Peoria sustaining Hockey success for 35 years in four leagues (AAA) IHL (AA) ECHL (AAA) AHL and (A) SPHL.

    Peoria has a strong brand. The Rivermen have averaged roughly 4000 spectators through the turnstiles the last 3 years. SPHL costs HALF as much to run as an ECHL team, and for many fans there is no perceived diminishment in play. In addition the Rivermen have a Marketing partnership with the Blackhawks which is great. Payer development in ECHL is a myth, any given ECHL team may have one asigned player maybe none, to that end those very few assignments can be easily absorbed by affiliated AHL clubs. ECHL is not growing, why would someone buy and operate an ECHL team which essentially costs the same to operate as an AHL team? (now if a perspective owner has the deep pockets and the opportunity to acquire an AHL team, that’s a different story, I’m a big fan of the AHL).

    SPHL is the business template that many owners are gravitating to so they wont’t be hemorrhaging money. So, SPHL does very well in a former AHL market in Peoria. Will that mean it will work in Moline? I have no idea. I just thought your well written op-ed might benefit from some perspective of what’s going on 75 min down the road.

    • Well said. The Quad Cities have a tradition that an astute and connected owner could exploit. What is needed for the Mallards is a hands-on owner who is familiar with EVERY part of the organization. The last couple years have been dogged by an absentee owner and a staff that is not doing what needs to be done to make the franchise a success. The newly formed Quad City Steamwheelers of the latest indoor football league have done a better job of gaining sponsors than the Mallards have in several years. We need a committed, locally focused organization, like the Peoria Rivermen have, to succeed, whatever the league.

      Junior level hockey will never succeed here because of the memories of the vintage Mallards teams. The ECHL team from this season may have made the SPHL playoffs, but that is a matter of opinion. A year or two without hockey may sound the death knoll for professional hockey at the TaxSlayer Center/ Mark/ Marsh. Let us hope the people in the Quad Cities do not face that eventuality.

  3. Quad Cities certainly are in the footprint of the USHL. Bloomington lost their SPHL team and they are averaging less than 900 per game for USHL Hockey (abysmal).

    Quad Cities metro is too big a market for Junior amateur team to play in the cavernous Taxslayer Arena. Peoria would not have supported Junior Hockey nor will Moline. If it is done right SPHL can work. SPHL is significantly better than it was 5 years ago. I can assure you, It was a tough pill to swallow in Peoria dropping from AAA to A and the first year wasn’t great. However, the ship was righted and Hockey is flourishing and Healthy again.

    A lot depends upon ownership group and the Head coach.

  4. Jim, excellent point that helps lead to success-the “astute” and “connected” owners are what really drive the Fort Wayne Komets. Long time Fort Wayne family that loved the Komets before they bought them. No out of town owners. The owners live in the community and run the team. Thats ALL they do and its success can be seen from their hearts.
    A lot of franchises in minor league sports are bought only to say “I own a sports franchise”. A lot or words are spoken to say how much they will be a part of the community but the actions always fall short.

    • Thank you, argee2. Yes, Fort Wayne has a long and successful history of hockey teams; one I hope we can eventually aspire to. I wish we could find an ownership group that would seek to regain the success we once had, though hockey has changed in the last 20+ years. I am happy that Howard Cornfield of the original Quad City Mallards is working with Scott Mullen of the Marsh to weed out wannabes and find an owner(s) with the right stuff. One key area that Mr. Melville did not exploit was cross-branding. The Mallards should have had a table/booth at Quad City River Bandits games (Midwest League Champions in minor league baseball last season) and the Bandits should have been promoting their team at Mallards games. We have one of the premier Dek Hockey (ball hockey on a plastic mesh surface played mostly in the warm season) operations here, but Jordan did not reach out to the owner, even though he is a former Mallard player who settled in the Quad Cities. Our Dek has been used for the Iowa Games over the past several years and local teams have traveled as far as Quebec for tournaments.There were so many opportunities that a locally connected owner could have / should have exploited. I hope this is not lost on whatever new owners we eventually have. Also, if we move to the SPHL, how can a built-in rivalry with another team with a great history like Peoria, less than a hundred miles away, not be a benefit. We can swarm each others arenas and give both organizations better attendance figures. I have enjoyed every Rivermen game I have attended and kept pointing out their success as an organization to Mallards fans.

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