We all saw it coming, really, it was just a matter of time until it happened.
Some predicted the team would fold around Christmas, but it didn’t even make it that far.
Just 10 games in, the news broke over the weekend that the Berlin BlackJacks of LNAH had been taken over by the league, citing a lack of fan support as the reason they were closing the doors. And honestly, they were weren’t wrong. Through five home tilts the BlackJacks averaged a paltry 390 fans per night, peaking at just over 600 fans for what turned out to be the final home game.
But it brings me back to the original question and title of the post, how does a team like Berlin (or any of the FHL teams that folded in the middle of the season), even get to take the ice in the first place?
I get that the owners of these type of teams initially have the money to pay the league dues and other expansion costs up front, but how do these leagues not do more homework and further vet these potential owners?
Make them show bank statements or something else that shows that they have enough money on-hand for the team to last the entire season, no matter how bad attendance gets. Because if a potential owner’s money solution is, “Well we’ll make it back in sponsors and ticket sales,” then leagues like LNAH, FHL, and SPHL would probably all fold tomorrow, because 9 out of 10 teams will probably tell you that they don’t sell enough tickets on a night-in, night-out basis for that alone to carry the team through a season.
I know all the league cares about (at first) is getting their check and having an even number of teams to start the year, but how can you not look beyond that and possibly prepare for a worst-case scenario like Berlin? I know it’s not the league’s job to babysit these teams and do the work for them to make it a success on the ice and in the stands, but come on, you have to do more than just take a check and then turn a blind on.
And now that Berlin has (we’ll assume) folded, the league has all sorts of other problems to figure out now, like how to play out the remaining schedule, what happens to the BlackJacks players, and maybe even how the hell to pay the outstanding bills that the Berlin owners likely left in their wake.
The other thing leagues and owners should take into account before they allow a team into the league, regardless of if the check clears: Is this a viable hockey market and are there enough people to realistically make this work and routinely draw in the fans you need to make it work, and make sure that the team doesn’t go tits up mid-season?
Berlin is a town of 9-10k people with nothing else around it, and has a rink that MAYBE has room for 1,000 actual seats. And yet, both the owners and league thought this was going to work. Take a look at the other five cities that LNAH has teams in it:
- Jonquiere Marquis in Saguenay, Quebec: 144,000 people in the city, the Jonquiere area alone more than 55,000 people in it.
- Riviere-du-Loup 3L in Riviere-du-Loup: Over 27,000 in the metro area.
- Saint-Georges Cool FM 103.5 in Saint-Georges: nearly 35,000 in the metro area.
- Sorel-Tracy Eperviers in Sorel-Tracy: nearly 48,000 in the metro area
- Thetford Assurancia in Thetford Mines: nearly 28,000 in metro area.
All of them at least three times bigger, and some up to 14 times bigger. And then look at the towns the FHL is in, non-Winston Salem division:
- Danville, IL: 33,000 city population
- Elmira, NY: 29,200 city population
- Mentor, OH: 47,000 city population
- Port Huron, MI: 29,000 city population
- Watertown, NY: 26,000 city population
So even the next smallest markets in the FHL are still three times bigger than what Berlin had to draw from. Berlin had hockey before and it failed, and this was in the FHL when they claimed they needed 1,000 fans a night to be viable, and drew roughly 600 a night, approximately seven percent of the town’s population.
So let’s again use that 1,000 fans a night number as our basemark for the LNAH BlackJacks to make it. The owners of the BlackJacks were counting on more than 10 percent of the town population coming out every night in order to make it. In reality, they got about four percent, nowhere near the needed 10 percent.
But is getting four percent of the town to come out and watch games bad, good, or about average compared to other hockey cities and leagues? Let’s find out using the FHL as our base since LNAH doesn’t post team attendance on the league stats.
In the FHL, if you got four percent of the population to come out to every game, here’s how many fans each team that’s played a home game would average, and their actual per game attendance so you can see just how unrealistic it was for Berlin’s owners to think that they could get 10 percent of the town at every game:
- Danville: 1,320 a night (Actual attendance this year: 875, 2.6% of population)
- Mentor: 1,880 a night (Actual attendance this year: 720, 1.5% of population) *NOTE: Mentor only posted attendance from the home opener, eye witnesses say it was over 1,200 but the league listed it as 720 so we went with that)
- Port Huron: 1,160 (Actual attendance this year: 1,041, 3.6% of population)
- Watertown: 1,040 (Actual attendance this year: 1,304, 5% of population)
- LEAGUE AVERAGE PERCENT OF POPULATION AT GAMES: 3.2%
So even the team drawing at the best rate of fans compared to population, Watertown, is still only pulling in five percent of the town’s population, halfway to the 10 percent Berlin needed. The average FHL team (again, non Winston-Salem version because their population and average crowds are so big that they are their own case study) brings in 3.2 percent of the town population. So Berlin actually exceeded the average percent of population at its home games.
Put it this way: If Berlin were in the FHL they’d be the second best team in the league at percentage of population at each game…and they would still be dead last in FHL average attendance by 330 fans a night. So when Berlin was drawing 600 a night in the FHL, they were getting roughly seven percent of the population to come to games, a HUGE number compared to our other teams, and THAT still wasn’t enough.
The bottom line is, there were never going to be enough people in Berlin for them to realistically get enough fans to make it work and last. It brings to mind the Steel City Warriors/SW PA Magic, who played in a region of 11,000 (the neighboring towns of Belle Veron and North Belle Vernon were a little over 3,000 combined) and averaged 140 fans a night (they had other issues as well including changing owners and name after one game, zero marketing and a REALLY bad team, that prevented fans from coming), but Steel City at least played out the full season, even with those dismal attendance numbers.
As we mentioned earlier, Berlin were doing 390 a night when they finally pulled the plug. They never had a prayer. Especially when reports say that owners did little marketing of the team, and were kind of unfriendly with fans online.
So the bottom line, even with paltry attendance, it’s not the fans fault, at all based on our research. The town was better than average a coming out to support the team, but when the town is so small that the number of fans that comes out is only 390 a night, then it’s on the owners and league for putting a team in such a small market.
The fans are the biggest losers in this, and the ones who are hurt most by this. Nobody should ever lose its team, especially mid-season. For all the issues a team folding or being turned over to the league causes, the fans are the ones who lose something to root for and likely, their money. On Facebook pages fans have been calling for refunds for their season tickets, and I’d be willing to bet my house they won’t get it back. Because if a team is calling it quits 10 games into a 36-game season because they don’t have money, there is no way they have money on hand to give you a refund.
Going forward, I hope these leagues take note of what makes a viable hockey market, and picks teams, towns, and owners that have large enough population and wallets so they can have long-term success, or at the very least, find owners that at least have the money to make it through an entire season.