A quick glance at the Federal Hockey League stats page shows you two outliers who are running away from the rest of the pack.
We’re not talking goals scored, goals given up, or even just win-loss record, but attendance. The Elimra Enforcers and Carolina Thunderbirds are so far ahead of the rest of the league, that it raises a ton of questions about both teams, and the league as a whole.
Through 10 home games, Carolina has increased attendance by 247 fans a night and is averaging an even 2,400 a night, numbers that would be the highest in FHL history, eclipsing their own season-long attendance mark set in their inaugural season.
I say would be the highest because the Elmira Enforcers are somehow lapping them at the gate. It’s been just six home games, but the Enforcers have rocked the turnstiles to the tune of 3,164 fans a night, 764 more fans a night than the Thunderbirds have brought in. To give you an idea of how absurd those numbers are for the FHL, if you took the COMBINED attendance of Watertown, Danville, Port Huron, and Mentor, they would be averaging 3,279 fans a night, just 115 more than Elmira alone brings in. And that’s with Watertown posting what would be record attendance so far.
The type of numbers that Carolina and Elmira are putting up at the gate are unheard of in the FHL, where aside from the first five years of the Danbury Whalers franchise that averaged about 1,750 a night, the typical FHL team is usually between 600 and 1000 a night. Carolina and Elmira are putting up numbers that would rank them 8th and 6th if they were both playing in the SPHL this year.
It makes you wonder if either team would consider moving to bigger and better leagues if things keep up the way they have.
After the season Carolina had at the gate in their first year in the FHL, immediately everyone wondered if they would make the jump to the SPHL, but those thoughts were shot down because the Fairgrounds Annex where they currently play, only has about 3,100 seats, well-short of the required 4,000 seats in the SPHL. But my question to the SPHL is, why does that matter? If the Thunderbirds are playing at 75% of their capacity and bringing in a legit 2,400 a night, then why couldn’t they make the jump, especially given their location right in the heart of the SPHL, with instant regional rivals in Roanoke, Fayetteville, and Knoxville?
For Elmira, they face an entirely different problem if they wanted to move up in the hockey world: They’ve been there, and it didn’t work. They spent 10 seasons in the ECHL, where affiliation and player salaries, not to mention way more travel and games, made for an expensive team that was only doing around 2,400 a night by the end, causing the team to fold. So even at more than 3,100 fans a night, there is literally no other league they could jump to. Gone is their old stomping grounds of the UHL, and other things like the CHL, IHL, and whatever other non-affiliated northern leagues have been gone for nearly 10 years in some cases.
While their attendance fits the mold of the SPHL, geographically, they don’t at all. The closest team to them is in Roanoke, VA, and that’s still a seven-and-a-half hour drive. And even if they SPHL did want to continue northern expansion, there are very few, if any, cities between Roanoke and Elmira that are available for a new hockey team and fit the mold of what the SPHL is looking for in a potential expansion city that might be a travel partner or rival for Elmira.
There’s also the issue of budget when considering a jump from the FHL to the SPHL. It’s not as simple as just transferring over and continuing to do business as usual like they did in the Fed. A team in the FHL generally tries to keep their yearly expenses to around $500k, while a jump to the SPHL, according to one inside source within the league, would mean at minimum doubling that to keep up with the other southern franchises. And that’s due to players having a higher salary (a team in the SPHL at max cap would spend just over $50,000 more than a FHL team at max cap), and WAY more travel to far more opponents. And for Elmira and Carolina, it would likely mean having to raise ticket prices from their wallet-friendly marks in the FHL, even though they are the two most expensive tickets in the FHL, which in turn may drive down attendance.
But it’s also a matter of if these franchises want to even jump, or if they are fine with being very big fish in a very little pond. In the FHL these teams are giants, at least in terms of attendance (and likely revenue), and a jump to the SPHL where you’re doubling your budget, could mean the difference between being financially viable, and hoping to just break even. Yes, the SPHL is a more reputable league that gets far more exposure and positive press, but is a jump there worth it if that move potentially puts the long-term health of either team at risk?
Finally, because Carolina and Elmira are so far ahead of the other four teams in the FHL, what might that mean for their future?
We mentioned Watertown is bringing in record attendance this year, roughly 250 fans a night more than they’ve ever brought in…and it’s still only 1,010 fans a night. Do Carolina and Elmira mean a shift in what the FHL eyes in future markets? Because at the moment, Carolina and Elmira are the only teams in towns that are the center of a metro area that has addition fans outside of the city to draw from. Carolina plays in a town of around 240,000 people, while Elmira the city is only 28,000 people, but has more than 90,000 people in the immediate area near the town. Danville, Watertown, and Port Huron are all out on an island in their areas, with each of those towns around the size of Elmira, but having little else around them. And Mentor is a suburb of a major American city, meaning they have more competition for entertainment dollars that any team in the league.
Does the FHL start to look at more metro areas like say a Charleston-Huntington, WV area with around 240,000 people in it? And we know they are looking at cities in the south like Asheville, with around 90,000 people in the city and nearly 425,000 in its metro area. It legitimately makes you wonder if the old FHL model of just having a small city of 25,000 people can last, and if markets like Danville, Port Huron, and Watertown will start to get left behind if the FHL is able to find 6-8 markets that consistently bring in around 2,000 fans a night.
But honestly, it’s a great problem for the FHL to have. They appear to have two absolute home run markets in Carolina and Elmira that appear set to be the league’s pillars for years to come, and then steady markets in Watertown, Danville, and Port Huron that will hopefully continue to bring hockey to those cities. And if Carolina and Elmira do stay put for the time being and bring in more legitimate markets, they’ll also be bringing something to the league, aside from large crowds, that they’ve never had: stability.