We’ve come to the point in the offseason where all the teams are set in place for next year, with one addition and one subtraction, as Quad City joins from the ECHL, and the state of Mississippi loses its franchise for the second time in SPHL history.
Quad City became the second team in Illinois, and just the second two-team state (Alabama).
This shouldn’t be the case for too long.
The Peach State should be considered a legitimate investment site for the Southern Professional Hockey League into the future, and should bring in two more teams alongside Macon.
Over the course of the history of the SPHL, the state of Georgia has had three cities used as markets: Macon (twice, Trax ’04 and Mayhem ’15-Now), Columbus (Cottonmouths ’04-17) and Augusta (’10-13).
This doesn’t tell the entire story though.
As is commonly known now, the Columbus Cottonmouths had to suspend operations following the end of the 2017 season due to the longtime, impassioned owners Wanda and Shelby Amos deciding to sell the team. A fringe-ownership group stepped forward to put a team on the ice for the 2018-19 season, but the SPHL threw out the application due to overall sketchiness.
This situation is very reminiscent of the situation that happened with Fayetteville a couple years ago, where the Fireantz organization was burning money and scorning fans, leading to the local partnership of Chuck Norris (no, not that one) and Jeff Longo stepping up, buying the team off of Cape Fear Pro Hockey, and reinvigorating the hockey fans in the community.
The only difference here for Columbus…is a Norris/Longo partnership group didn’t step forward and keep hockey. In fact, things went silent and the franchise couldn’t continue.
Since then, mums continued to be the word. The Cottonmouths fanbase has been waiting ever since the tease of the *shudders* Columbus Burn, and rightfully so. The Cottonmouths were a valuable and well-respected franchise that fit right in the heart of the western Georgia community. Almost everyone in the SPHL is hoping for a return of this currently dormant franchise in the near future.
I believe that this is only half of the expansion that the SPHL should do in Georgia. Everyone knows and remembers the success and popularity of Columbus, but many forget what was the Augusta RiverHawks.
The Augusta RiverHawks franchise, now known as the Macon Mayhem, were a decently popular, but mainly stable franchise in Augusta, Georgia (yes, that Augusta). Playing out of the beautiful James Brown Arena, the RiverHawks existed for only a few short years before some…odd…complications forced the end of the team.
James Brown Arena had a major ice refrigeration system malfunction during early 2013, forcing the team to finish their season at their practice facility. The Arena, city, and ownership could not decide whether to repair or replace the system in time for the ’13-14 season, causing them to go on hiatus. Coincidentally, the last game the organization played…was against Columbus.
The ownership then decided their interest in relocating to either Greensboro (N.C.) or Tallahassee (FL), rather than keep the team in town. The SPHL decided that Macon would be a more sensible market, having being previously tested, and the team has remained since then. An odd, disappointing end to the franchise in east Georgia.
That leaves us just with Macon. Why does that means that the SPHL should consider raising Columbus and Augusta from the grave?
Let’s look at the pros and cons.
This is a no-brainer, perfect place to return for the SPHL. Better than truly any former city to host a franchise. Columbus did great attendance numbers (save the last year), had fans who are still bought into the team and would eagerly line up for season tickets, and would reinvigorate a long-time hockey hotbed.
Columbus hosted hockey from 1996 to last year, and won three league championships in two different leagues in that time, one in the Central Hockey League and two President’s (SPHL) Cups. Attendance has always fluctuated between mid-2000s and up to 4500 for an average full season.
The Columbus Civic Center seats just under 7,500 for hockey, and is relatively young for an SPHL arena at 22 years old. The city is more than open to bringing a franchise back, as they welcomed in the previously interested ownership group in with no hesitation.
Oh yeah, and let’s talk real estate. Columbus almost couldn’t be in a more perfect location geographically speaking. Right on the edge of the Alabama border, Columbus is less than two hours from Macon (GA), under three hours from Birmingham, and just under four hours away from Pensacola (FL) and (were it to happen) Augusta, only four-and-a-half hours from Huntsville (AL), and just under five hours from Knoxville (TN). This is a perfect travel situation for a team to come right in, and plug-and-play.
These combination of things make for a perfect cocktail to properly make Columbus a hockey city once again. Yes, lack of ownership has prevented a team coming in so far, but the SPHL and City of Columbus should seriously search during this offseason for an ownership group to put a team together in time for ’19-20 or ’20-21.
This move is logical, profitable, and would be excellent PR for the SPHL, revitalizing a currently dead community again, much like they did with Macon.
This one, admittedly, is a bit more out there.
I don’t believe that Augusta got a fair shake. The city only a few years prior had a decently long-term ECHL franchise, and when the RiverHawks were brought in it was a slower start, but the organization was consistent and had fans who were interested and came out.
The situation that ended the team was…unexpected to say the least, and shouldn’t be at any totally irreversible fault of the city. They eventually did get the refrigeration system fixed, and the James Brown Arena still hosts ice events, such as Disney on Ice. Therefore, hockey can still work here and could come back.
It has been over five years since a team skated out at the JBA, but this is almost now an untapped hockey market, with hockey being abandoned. The arena seats nearly 6,600 for hockey, making it a great size for the SPHL, and allows for a large attendance when possible. The arena has made some modern improvements as well, with a high definition LED video board on both sides of the rink.
The arena looks like the perfect hybrid ECHL-SPHL sized rink, has more than modern amenities, and is located very near the business and entertainment district of Augusta, which itself is a relatively large community that would be able to support the SPHL.
Again, real estate is favorable. On the east side of Georgia, right on the border of South Carolina, and even more north than some S.C. cities, allowing for consideration back into South Carolina, like the city of Florence, where hockey was once a hot commodity.
With the location of Augusta, it’s just over two hours from Macon, about three-and-a-half hours from Fayetteville, would be just under four hours from Columbus, and just under five hours from Knoxville.
Having that many teams relatively close by makes the area look more attractive, and as was stated earlier, reopens up South Carolina with Fayetteville just north as well.
If the SPHL were considering Savannah (GA) as we mentioned in our expansion speculation, that’s two-and-a-half hours away still, allowing for the bigger community of Savannah to have no affiliation with Augusta, a closer rival, and again a team near South Carolina.
The attendance numbers were low, but I think especially just losing the ECHL, it’s not too surprising to see. Also, the team was not…great. James Brown Arena is looking for a full-time winter tenant, and the SPHL would be smart to do a feasibility report on the market again, maybe by hosting an exhibition game there and seeing what demographics come back.
The Peach State seems like a perfect, natural fit for the SPHL to expand to, and already with a tried-and-true market in the heart of the state, and with possible former cities being close to franchises on both sides of the state, it makes sense and is feasible.
Fans are desperately seeking the return of Columbus, and Augusta could prove to be a goldmine market if they marketed it right and prepared well-ahead of time for success.
Both markets are worth looking at and testing feasibility.
The SPHL future is bright, and could be made sunnier re-investing on the Atlantic Coast.