With the news that Quad City is on the way in to the SPHL, and this morning’s shocking news that the Mississippi RiverKings were ceasing operations, Shawn and myself got to wondering: With two dormant teams in the SPHL (Mississippi and Columbus), where might the SPHL turn to next for expansion?
We each took four cities that we think the league could be eyeing. We have no proof that the SPHL is looking at these cities, but logistically it makes sense. We took into account hockey history, rinks, proximity to other cities, and a few other things, here is what we came up with.
Hockey should work in Memphis, in fact, hockey has worked in Memphis as the RiverKings proved when they were in the old CHL and played at the Mid-South Coliseum. Notice I didn’t mention Southaven. Yes, the Landers Center is a nice arena, but it’s not Memphis. If you had a team in actual Memphis, that team would easily do over 3000 a night. I ralize they had some strong seasons in Southaven as far as attendance, but put them in Memphis where there’s more corporate dollars, and it would work. The problem: There’s no place for them to play in Memphis, which is why everyone thinks that if a team is to come back, it would be in Southaven. The old Mid-South Coliseum is a dump, the FedEx Forum is way too big for SPHL and probably doesn’t have ice. Honestly, unless somebody with deep pockets who can market the team like crazy shows up, hockey probably isn’t coming back to the area until Memphis gets a proper arena for it.
Another area that like Memphis/Southaven has had hockey in the past and had it work. The Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL averaged over 3000 fans a night every year they were in the ECHL, but did see that attendance drop by more than 50% from the first two years where they did 6500 a night, to 3156 in the final ECHL season. After joining the SPHL as the Mississippi Surge, they lasted five seasons and attendance was not great. They did 2650 in the first season, and down to 2117 in the final, which would have been last by more than 200 fans a night this past season. The facility is there, and they’ve had successful teams and fan support in the past, but I just don’t see the SPHL coming back here. This would also be the southern and western-most team in the league, which is bad for travel.
This is one to keep an eye on for the future, because the ECHL team currently in the Hampton Roads area is not doing great, to put it mildly. They are only doing 2600 a night in the ECHL, next to last in the league. Part of that has to be fans being upset that the team went from the AHL to basically getting demoted to the ECHL when Anaheim wanted its AHL affiliation closer to them. Which makes me wonder how many fans would stick around if they get “demoted” again to the SPHL. There’s perfect sized arenas for the league, there’s hockey fans, it fits geographically with teams in Virginia and North Carolina nearby, but it legit worries me what the fan turnout would be like if they were to get a team that yet again is in a lower league.
If there’s one market the SPHL should be jumping at trying to secure, this is it. It’s a more northern team and instantly gives Evansville a rival team. It’s not that far from Peoria and Quad City, close to Knoxville and Roanoke, not bad to Huntsville, and it’s a big, growing city. This would be a slam dunk for the SPHL if they were to put a team here. The issue, as is the case with so many cities, is the arena. I am not super familiar with the Louisville area, but I’ve never heard of them having hockey before, or if there is a rink and arena in the city that would fit the profile the SPHL is looking for. (UPDATE: Several readers pointed out that the city had ECHL hockey from 1990 to 1998, and AHL from 1999 to 2001, we’re both under 30, so you’ll have to forgive us for not remembering those teams.) That’s what gives me pause about Louisville, because I feel like if they had a rink that worked for hockey and the SPHL, there would already be a team there.
It is a shame that since the end of the Franchise in early 2017, hockey has not returned to Columbus. This is a wonderful hockey market, existing in the CHL (1996-2001), ECHL (2001-2004) and lasting a whopping 13 years (2004-2017) in the SPHL. Fans have been hungry for professional hockey’s return, and it almost happened! Last year, the “Columbus Burn” expansion application was filed to the SPHL and an ownership came forward with cash in hand, ready to put a team down in Columbus, be it in the SPHL or any higher league. The SPHL denied the application, presumably under pretenses that this was not the right route to take such a market yet, and it’s been a lull ever since. Honestly, if you ask me, it’s not if but when on the Columbus market. The suspension of operations was just supposed to be for 2017-18, but it is safe to assume that unless the RiverKings franchise relocates to Columbus, fans will have to wait until 2019-2020 for hockey.
The golden goose of the Federal Hockey League, home to the breakout hit team Carolina Thunderbirds, and in perfect territory of the Southern Professional Hockey League, every fan in the South has prayed that this team would be promoted in the future. The SPHL has tried W-S on numerous occassions, but it has never stuck. Why would it work now? The answer is simple: Scott Brand and Co. Never before has there been such a legitimate professional hockey presence in Winston-Salem, with diehard fans and corporate sponsors. The Annex (home of the Thunderbirds) has given the team an outstanding lease deal, and the team is nearing capacity more times than not. Not to mention, rumors of renovations to increase seating to match what the SPHL would require are being discussed. However, the problem comes from speculation like this. The Thunderbirds are just at the fringe of SPHL-necessary attendance numbers, and to be able to be profitable in this league like they are in the cheaper FHL, they’d need to up the prices, which are already a great deal. Would being in a higher league and having an in-state rival (Fayetteville) increased attendance should a renovation occur? It’s tough to say for sure. However, one cannot help but wonder if the SPHL would allow a team owned by Barry Soskin into their league. If Carolina exponentially grows from what it could do this past season, this could become realistic. Right now, the Thunderbirds would need to be serious about moving up, and with the tireless work of Brand to grow the FHL, it doesn’t seem immediately likely.
I literally stay up at night praying for this to happen. Savannah, Georgia might be the Southeast Coast’s greatest secret hockey hotbed. Heading into its 20th year, the Savannah Civic Center hosts the Savannah Tire Hockey Classic, where the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s “four most exciting programs in the South” (Georgia, Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Florida) compete for the Thrasher Cup. It is INSANE and incredibly popular. Nearly capacity attendance in the Martin Luther King Arena in the Savannah Civic Center, which seats between “3,500 to 7,200”, which is perfect SPHL size. However, this is only to be around for the near-future. This is the good and bad of the situation. Savannah has approved plans to build a new, 9,000 seat arena (plus a multitude of suites) which could be complete by 2021. In the talks to fund this new arena, selling the Civic Center has been discussed. What has not been discussed, is if there will be hockey or not. It is easily assumed that with an arena of this size in this area, and being such a luxury-style arena, if this comes to fruition that the city of Savannah would more realistically pursue an ECHL franchise. Hockey is coming to Savannah, and you can write that in stone, it’s just a matter of it comes in “AA” form or in Mason-Dixon Hockey.
This team is going to lose its ECHL franchise, that much I can almost confirm. Attendance is at the very bottom of the ECHL, despite even giving out free tickets this season. Hell, even in the SPHL they would be at the very bottom of attendance, that’s how severely poor things are with the Wheeling Nailers. With affiliate fees for the Pittsburgh Penguins having to be high, it only seems inevitable that this team doesn’t last. Unless the Penguins enjoy the real estate, and the owners have some deep pockets, money is being burned here. Meanwhile, Wheeling is within SPHL territory, about the city and arena size for a team in this franchise, and would be a realistic team to have a Quad City situation, that could be immediate. The question though becomes, with attendance already this poor for an ECHL team, would dropping down to the SPHL keep even more fans away? That seemed to be the problem for Norfolk, and only time will tell if that’ll happen to Quad City. If Wheeling loses its ECHL franchise, the SPHL would seemingly have arms wide open for a geographic rival for Roanoke, and allow another ECHL team to join their ranks. Keep your eyes on this one in the coming years.
So that’s our picks, where would you like to see the next SPHL team(s) land if you were expanding the league?