The Federal Hockey League is heading into its most exciting off-season in history, fronted by the furious effort of one-man-band Scott Hockey Brand, President & General Manager of the league’s golden goose Carolina Thunderbirds.
Brand and Co. have silenced all doubters of hockey in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, previously considered a hockey graveyard from demons of the past.
After breaking the Federal Hockey League’s single-season attendance record, and already securing season ticket holders to prevent a “Sophomore Slump”, the Thunderbirds look primed to do something that is often a pipe-dream in both Winston-Salem and the FHL – season-to-season retention.
For Brand, now a prominent figure and voice of the League after his franchise’s unprecedented breakout, it’s not just about his organization, but growth and stability of the entire league.
As a testament to this, in a Hot Sprots Takes exclusive interview, I was able to chat with Brand during his recruiting journeys from the East Coast to the Midwest.
SHAWN: What is your view of the Federal Hockey League’s fit in professional hockey?
BRAND: I believe the business model works. It provides entertainment for small-to-medium sized buildings and markets. I think any opportunity to play our game is a great thing. It provides 20 young players per team with a chance to develop and stay involved in hockey, and for Staff a chance to develop.
S: What of the Federal Hockey League itself?
B: The league gets crapped on a lot, and honestly, its practices in the past, they probably deserve 70 percent of it.
You have to give them credit, nine years it has made it. I think the league is heading in right direction. We need to find our six solid markets that can average 750 to 1000 people.
We need to be proactive instead of reactivate, and…better communicate with the public. But you have to at the very least give credit to the gentleman who have kept the league operational.
S: Definitely, and to give credit, every league has gone through similar problems in its history, just maybe not as highly on the noticeable level like the Federal.
The ECHL, where you’ve sent a good number of your players, has lost a number of franchises in the same span, as well as the other league at the “Single A” pro level, the SPHL, has lost a number of franchises, even in W-S.
The SPHL has revitalized former ECHL and UHL markets, the FHL has brought back the hockey hot bed of Port Huron from the U/IHL, and your staff and fans have brought to life what has often been considered a franchise graveyard in Winston-Salem.
You have a philosophy of no bad markets, only bad marketers. How does the success and stability you’ve proven to confide in a FHL team make the league (and it’s lower cost than competitor leagues) look more attractive to serious expansion candidates?
B: You’re right, every league has had issues. The [FHL] seems to like to repeat history more often.
I hope that [the Carolina Thunderbirds] have shown success is possible at any level. We didn’t have a magic wand, and all we heard was [Winston-Salem] would “never draw more than 800, and a good crowd would be 1200”. We did it by hiring the right people, letting them do their jobs and even make mistakes. We spent advertising dollars, our staff worked 80-plus hours and we did things that connected us to the community.
We “manufactured” sellout, Standing Room Only, and close-to-sellout nights by targeting those nights, then making sure it was an event, not a hockey game. I believe most ownership gets so caught up on the on ice product, they forget the superstars are your office staff and tickets sales. It’s not that hard: bring in the right office team to “win”.
I think we also got the benefit of coming in a season before and getting to become of and learn about our community. I learned to say “y’all” instead of “you all” or “us” and “bless your heart” versus “you’re a dummy”. *laughs*
Editor Note: Scott Brand is a native of Michigan who worked over thirty years in professional and amateur sports in the Midwest. Scott Brand is not a previously-seasoned Southerner.
S: How does the process of finding prospective expansion teams work?
B: Building must seat at least 1000 with the opportunity to add at least 500, perfect buildings [seat] 1750 to 2500. Need beer sales, and the right to sell the advertisement inside the playing area. Need a permanent locker room, and weekend dates. After that, it’s time to negotiate a lease.
Currently the league is looking for locations, but two of the six buildings have contacted us. Long term you want all future teams to contact the league. Right now I think the league will develop one of the new teams, and the other one will be new owners. Long term hope for one ownership per team, or you do [it like the] Central Hockey League and have one ownership group for all teams. New procedures are being added to prevent new owners from being underfunded.
The other elephant in the room is teams in other leagues. Simple numbers tell you that if you are drawing less than 3500 in the ECHL, 3000 in the SPHL, 2500 in the USHL or 1500 in the NAHL, depending on your lease, you may be looking at a lower-cost league.
S: Port Huron proved to still be hockey hungry, W-S is a hot bed, and Watertown has been around as a franchise from the beginning.
Past speculation aside, where do you realistically see the league furthering its success, and where has the league legitimately looked in the plan for six teams in two years?
B: It would be great to be in a tight, 500-mile radius league, or at least two tight divisions. It’s important that we try and stay tight, or at least with some travel partners. As leagues grow, that can’t always happen.
First item is a workable lease that includes advertising and some form of concessions or attendance rebate. Then, even with a long trip or two, a revenue budget of 350 to 425 dollars. Like a lot of new businesses, there will be start up cost and cash-flow issues. I believe most business start off in trouble…can’t be unfunded to start with or you never get out of the hole.
As for new markets, we have six, what I would call “opportunities”, for 2018-19, 2019-20. I think we have a few more locations, but I would not print up tickets. *laughs*
So, three to four [opportunities] for this season, I hope we get at least two of them. One seems very good with independent ownership, which we need. The other we got a little bad news in terms of getting seating to 2000, now we have to discuss if we can make a good of it with 1400, or wait until 2019. We know to be successful these teams have to come on board before the end of [May]. The third team I don’t have a lot of knowledge about.
S: Would the league consider expansion to previous FHL cities like Dayton or the Northeast?
B: I would like to think yes. Dayton is an excellent hockey town. If they get a new arena, I am sure they can attract a high level team. I wish I would’ve had the opportunity to work there, I remember skating in Hara with the bombers. Hara should of been a home run for us.
Eastern markets, yes, but we have to have strong ownership who can market and can afford to battle the FHL’s past records. If Danbury, Connecticut wasn’t burned so much, and with a partnership with the building, it too could be a solid team.
S: With helping bring these teams in the league, it has to remind you of your experience just one year ago preparing for your first season. What is the biggest challenge for a new FHL team?
B: Acting like a professional hockey organization and instilling trust. We ran into “the last team did this and left town” or “the number of disbanded FHL teams looks like a WWF ring after Andre the Giant (’70s) got done“.
First, all season ticket money was deposited with the city and arena so I couldn’t bolt with people’s money. While that caused some cash flow issues, people liked that.
You have to acknowledge the fault and failures of the past teams and leagues. Be honest with those people, listen to them. They are the consumer.
Don’t be understaffed.
Try different marketing, it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as the team tried it! For every one dumb marketing mistake, “liquor and handgun night”, you’re going to hit on three others like “new spouse night”. *laughs*
You need two to three front office superstars focused on ticket sales. Corporate will come; invest in your people, advertising, and sales tools.
If 25 people show up for a game, they better leave entertained. Remember: we are in the entertainment business, we can’t control the outcome of the game. So people need to leave believing the experience was worth the investment.
S: What will your involvement be in these prospective expansions?
B: I am negotiating the lease and working with the city, buildings and the ownership groups. The Thunderbirds need more teams to beat up! So, I guess I am the lead on two of them, and will hopefully get them set up and in place.
I will offer my help as an adviser or resource, but my focus is W-S. We still have 600 seats per game available we need to sell and we want 10 crowds sold out, or close to being sold out. Our focus is packing the building and slowly start to make improvements to The Annex, which will allow us to offer more amenities, a better experience, and to expand to 4,000 seats.
[The Thunderbirds] have to get either a Cable TV deal, or at least more videos and reliable internet broadcast. ESPN isn’t happening, so fans everywhere have to be able to watch games, and personally I think for free or low cost.
S: Massive expansion is obviously in the works right now, but what is the endgame for the league in terms of size and growth?
B: I believe that long term we need to try and get to 12 teams. Two divisions of six with team clusters in groups of three. Right now we need six solid markets. We have four; add two more, then look at two for 2019-20.
We also need to expand our ownership. If we can make operational changes in the league, I think we can become more attractive to outside investors. We have to make some tough changes the way we operate.
This may get me in trouble, but…our league makes poor decisions based on rumor and past history. We have a history of shitty decisions, why repeat them?
We also need to invest more in our overall league operations, both with money and personnel. There are great people, we need to let them do their jobs. We have to be more open and professional.
S: How do you personally view the SPHL in juxtaposition to the FHL, especially with your team being right in the heart of that league?
B: The SPHL is a great league, run by a real good commissioner, and a very good board of directors. Another 1000 seats, and I would be lying if I didn’t say [Carolina] would try and jump.
Maybe one of the best things we could do is have them administratively operate our league. It would take a lot of pressure off our league office to focus on getting our league to a solid six [teams].
My hope is we can structure our league operations like them, but it’s going to take commitment, investment and a willingness to want to change.
S: Do you think that there could ever be a partnership between your two leagues, both being “Single A” professional hockey?
B: Yes, I believe we could, the operations model are different. They are buildings over 4000, and we are seating under 4000. No league, not even the NHL, can afford to be cocky; there is a place for the SPHL and FHL.
S: After nearly 10 years of existence, it seems as though the next few will be incredibly telling for its future. Where do you realistically see the FHL in five years?
B: Five years, if we make solid moves in league operations: 10 teams, four of them from current locations of current teams in other leagues.
A rule known as the Carolina Rule after we win our fifth league title.
12 former league personnel in the AHL, probably broadcasters or referees. *laughs*
Then everyone picking on the new “Single A” League in Texas!
S: The last question is the important one:
With all the service academies in the United States Military having either NCAA or ACHA hockey teams, how good would a team of troops do in the FHL?
B: We played several armed forces players in sled hockey. They kicked our ass.
Scoreboard, the NCAA teams…my money is on them by 4 goals, us in the corners.
Club teams…[Thunderbirds] by 3, but they would beat the hell out of us.
I have a lot of respect for the toughness of our soldiers.
First impressions are everything. In its first decade, the Federal Hockey League has made quite a polarizing impression. However, a league that learns from its failures can become better because of them.
With passionate and serious administrators like Scott Brand, the Federal Hockey League has a legitimate chance to overcome the stigma, demons, and failures of the past.Brand is no stranger to running high-level teams and organizations, between 34 years in the USHL, and running Pure Professional Wrestling. Give a man with his knowledge and marketability the keys to the kingdom, and…well Carolina’s numbers speak for themselves.
Like it or not, the FHL is going nowhere. Even if it were to die, low-level Single A minor league hockey will make its return. This league has been around since the ashes of the International Hockey League, the United Hockey League, and any other alphabet soup leagues that have since converged, combined, or folded.
There is a necessity and interest in small communities for affordable, high-value, entertaining family-centric events. Competition is healthy, and fan bases connect a community. Vastly different scale, but the entire city of Grand Rapids, MI popped up and grew because of the AHL’s Griffins. The city of Winston-Salem has finally lifted the curse of failed hockey attached to their name, and the reason for that is far from the 60 minute battles on the ice.
The FHL stock is on the rise, and that is great for the Brand.