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AUBURN, Ala. — Over the past three seasons, the Southern Professional Hockey League has enjoyed expansion to such cities as Roanoke, Va.; Evansville, Ind.; Birmingham, Ala.; and this season, the Quad-Cities area in Illinois and Iowa. However, the expansion has been tempered by the loss of a few teams as well: the Louisiana IceGators in 2016, the Columbus Cottonmouths in 2017, and the Mississippi RiverKings this past season. All three now-defunct teams had been fixtures in their area for over two decades each.

The Mississippi RiverKings ended a run of over a quarter century in the Memphis metro area. (Photo: Kori LaVire/Mississippi RiverKings)

So why do these teams fail? Here are some popular theories, followed by teams who have bucked the trend.

THEORY 1: “My team played in a terrible building. That’s why they failed.”

Enter the Knoxville Ice Bears.

The Ice Bears’ home Knoxville Civic Coliseum, a roughly 5,000-seat building that is described as “intimate” by many, the equivalent of “bless its heart” in Southern vernacular, was built in 1961. It’s the SPHL’s oldest and smallest home arena.

The Ice Bears have done anything but fail.

Bolstered by three championships out of the gate in the league’s first five seasons, the team has been highly successful despite playing in an arena that lacks many of the creature comforts of newer venues.

“Everyone knows the building is what it is,” said Knoxville general manager Mike Murray. “We just recently announced (the city of Knoxville is) going to put $10 million in (renovating the Coliseum), and when a new mayor is appointed, we’ll fight that battle yet again. I get very jealous when I walk in these other buildings and they have all these bells and whistles that we don’t have. I’m very proud of our staff and our organization for what we do without those bells and whistles.”

The Ice Bears have made incremental improvements themselves to the building, such as installing bigger scoreboards on each side of the arena. With the money earmarked by the city, however, the bar will be raised.

“One of the things were getting with part of that $10 million is a center-hanging video board we’ve always wanted,” Murray said. “To see all the things that we do come to life on that video screen…I’ll be surprised if it didn’t bump up our attendance by another 400 or 500 a game.

“I can’t do anything about the building,” Murray added. “I’d love to wave a magic wand and have a brand new multi-use facility in this town, but in the meantime, we’re going to embrace what we have to work with and make the best of it. That’s what we do. It’s an old building, but it’s pretty intimate, and we do so many interactive things with fans here during the game. It’s just a fun two and a half hours of entertainment we give 30-plus times a year.”

THEORY 2: “We had a losing team. No one wants to go watch that.”

No team in SPHL history debunked that theory more successfully than the Huntsville Havoc in 2014-15.

Injuries decimated the Havoc that season, relegating them to the basement in the standings and an abysmal 11-38-7 record. But the Havoc faithful continued to show up when they played in Huntsville. The team averaged 3,585 fans, third-best in the SPHL. Why did the fans keep showing up when the on-ice product was subpar?

“I think the main part is that you have to entertain them when they’re there,” said Havoc president Ashley Balch. “Even if you’re not winning, as long as you’re entertaining them and keeping the fans engaged, that’s what they’re looking for.

“It’s like going to a movie. As long as they’re entertained for the most part and they enjoy themselves, they’re going to come back whether you’re winning or not.  It’s always better to win, and it’s always easier to sell winning, but the entertainment at the end is what you have to sell.”

THEORY 3:This is the South. Hockey can’t compete with football.”

Huntsville is firmly in football country, with fans of both the University of Alabama and Auburn University football teams in large numbers as well as numerous prestigious high school teams around the region. Just as the Havoc debunked other myths, they have had successful crowds while competing with high school and college teams. Consider the following:

  • As Auburn and Ole Miss faced off for a matchup between two of the top 4 teams in the country at the time on Nov. 1, 2014, the Havoc had 5,181 pack the Von Braun Center for their home opener. Two seasons later, with the Tigers and Rebels facing off again, Huntsville had a sizeable crowd of 3,942 attend their home opener as well.
  • With Alabama and Auburn both at home on Nov. 21, 2015, albeit against far inferior teams, Huntsville had 3,896 watch the Havoc beat Pensacola that night. With the same situation the next season, on Nov. 19, 2016, the Havoc saw 3,027 fans through the turnstiles that night as the Tigers and Crimson Tide both had home games.
  • Huntsville’s 2017-18 home opener, played on a Friday night where playoff positioning was still up for grabs for area high school teams, saw 5,859 fans watch the Havoc defeat Fayetteville.

What’s the secret?

“If it’s a big game, you can’t compete with it,” Balch said. “Those smaller games, I don’t think many people want to see Alabama play Charleston Southern or Auburn play Mercer. If it’s on and they don’t have anything else to do, they may sit and watch it, but I think those people are tired of that, so we don’t really worry about that too much.

“If it’s a Saturday night, we try to have a good promotion to get people there. If it’s a Friday night with high school football, we have one of our theme nights where people can dress up, win prizes, and have something fun to do.”

The Columbus Cottonmouths folded after the 2016-17 season and a 21-year run as a fixture in the city. (Photo: Dawne Walters/The Sin Bin)

REALITY: Teams fail because of a lack of marketing, promotions, and visibility.

Both Murray and Balch agreed: it is imperative for teams to have a presence in the community, either through media or by being an active participant in events and promotions.

“It’s been said many times before…we’re in the professional hockey business, but we’re also in the entertainment business,” Murray said. “We really try to embrace the community, and the community embraces us in return; not just in the season, but in the summer when we’re supporting different things around town. They see that.”

For the Havoc, a headfirst dive into social media, according to Balch, was a huge part of their skyrocketing attendance numbers.

“We looked a couple of years ago and decided (to) be at the forefront of it,” Balch said. “It was all (Havoc owner) Keith (Jeffries), really. He said we should hire a social media person. We pulled all the money we spent on traditional advertising, television and that kind of stuff, and we threw it all into what we could do online to engage people we know are already our fans.

“If you like our Facebook page, we know you’re interested in us, so we can contact and advertise to you directly as opposed to advertising on a cable (TV) spot and hoping it hits somebody. We thought we’d try it, and to us, that’s been the game-changer the last three years.”

The marketing success has led to some sellouts in Huntsville over the past few seasons.

“We decided to pick a handful of games three years ago and put all our efforts into selling out those games,” Balch said. “Those five games turned into eight the next year and then went to 10; last year, we had 12. It’s kind of snowballed and worked for us. People say ‘something’s going on, they’re selling these games out, so we’ve got to get in and see what’s going on and what the excitement’s about.’”

Huntsville broke the SPHL attendance record in 2015-16, drawing an average of 4,187 fans a game. In 2016-17, they shattered their own record with a 4,648 average attendance. The hat trick came last season when the Havoc again set the league record with an average of 4,774 fans through the turnstiles each game. Could they go for the four-peat this coming year? Is the 5,000 mark attainable?

“We look at that every year,” Balch said. “When is this thing going to cap and we can say we’ve done all we can do? We’re not there yet, and we don’t want to get there. We want to keep coming up with ideas, and a lot of it depends on your schedule. You’ve got to have a good schedule and a good relationship with the building. We’re so fortunate to be able to try some things at the concession stand with discounts or specialty items…things to pull people in and give them better entertainment while they’re here. That’s always the goal.”

At the end of the day, it’s not a competition but rather a partnership among teams to see the entire league succeed.

“That’s what’s really neat about our league,” Murray said. “We’re all a family. We just got back from the league meetings in Charlotte, and we all want to see each other do well. We don’t want to see teams fade away. We want to keep building our league.”

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