After posting our theories about what potential southern expansion could mean for the FHL going forward, many readers, whether it be on our social media pages or in FHL or SPHL groups, wondered if the FHL was looking to try to force a league merger if they could get 4-6 teams in the south.
Allow me to answer that question for you: No, they are not trying to force a merger, for a lot of reasons, and we’ll try to spell them out.
First, it wouldn’t be a merger, it would either be absorption, or just outright bailing on the FHL
As it stands right now, there is ONE team in the FHL who could maybe make a jump to the SPHL, the Carolina Thunderbirds. They are the only team in the league who draws enough fans, and fits into the SPHL’s geographic region.
Sorry Elmira, but with the closest team at 8+ hours away, it isn’t happening. And the other four of Mentor, Port Huron, Danville, and Watertown would all fold tomorrow if their only option was to join the SPHL, more on this below.
So if you have just one team making the jump and killing off the other five teams, it’s absorption, and I would bet the FHL and its cities want to continue to have pro hockey in them. Or, the more realistic scenario, if one team like Carolina just up and leaves while the other five teams continue to play on, that’s just bailing on the league.
So as the leagues currently stand, no, a traditional merger between the two leagues isn’t happening.
What about if massive southern expansion comes to the FHL?
As we’ve noted before in multiple pieces, the FHL and SPHL have such different financials that it would be almost impossible for them to match up, and unless a team was making an absurd amount of profit in the FHL, every team would either fold, or would go to barely scraping by.
So even if the FHL added say, four more teams in the south, the same geographic region as the SPHL, that doesn’t mean that they match in any way other than proximity. Nobody is clamoring for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL to join the AHL despite having teams nearby in Grand Rapids, Chicago, Rockford, and Milwaukee.
The SPHL is 2-3x more expensive than a FHL team for a variety of reasons, while the FHL tries to stay at around $500k for a season. So to tell a team that they have to double their budget overnight would be impossible, no matter how close they might be to the teams in the SPHL.
But why is the FHL looking at cities in the south, including former SPHL cities?
Again, this is fairly simple: Because not every city can support a team in the SPHL or has ownership groups that can afford a team in the SPHL. Just like cities that can’t support an NHL team turn to the AHL, or can’t support an AHL team turn to the ECHL, and those who can’t support the ECHL turn to the SPHL. So the FHL might be a viable option for cities that may not be able to support a team in the SPHL.
We noted the prices above, and that’s a challenge for many cities to break even. You need around 2,500 to 3,000 fans a night in the SPHL to stay solvent, and all you need to do is go take a look at the current SPHL attendance numbers to know that’s a big challenge, so maybe you only get 1,500 to 2,000 fans a night in the FHL, but at half the cost, you don’t need as many fans to last.
We know that the city of Columbus wants the SPHL, and the SPHL would love to have Columbus back in the league as evidenced by the attempted Columbus Burn, but the people who will be writing the checks for a potential team are the ones who have the final say, and cutting your potential expenses in half is pretty appealing to a lot of owners.
And really, the only two SPHL cities we’ve heard the FHL seriously eyeing in recent years has been Birmingham, and that was before the FHL had interest there, and now Columbus, and that was after the SPHL team there folded and an attempted new team fell through. It’s not like they’re going into potential cities that SPHL is eyeing, hypothetically like a Lexington, Kentucky, and saying, “Hey, you should pick us instead, here’s why.”
Some are upset that the FHL is eyeing southern teams, but if it’s all a city can afford, or if that southern city is too small to have enough fan support for an SPHL team, then why not try the FHL, and why does it matter that the FHL stakes its claim in those cities that have no chance at an SPHL team? Nobody seemed to get upset that the SPHL snagged Peoria and Quad City.
Well if they won’t merge, could the FHL be farm teams to the SPHL?
Some have also brought this up, and also no, at least not in an official sense.
Most SPHL don’t make money as it is, or if they do, make very little, so the last thing these teams owners want is to be saddled with ANOTHER team, in a lower league, that may not make money either, and has a greater chance of flaming out in spectacular fashion.
So even if southern expansion happens for the FHL, all it does it make it easier and faster to keep the current system going where FHL teams loan players out to the SPHL. Southern expansion in the FHL could help actually the SPHL teams, because then the SPHL teams have players who are playing actual contact games in the region, and aren’t waiting for the player to make a 10+ hour drive down after they get loaned out from Port Huron or Watertown.
So to recap, no, the FHL is not trying to force a merger with the SPHL even with the southern expansion rumors. It would be too expensive for pretty much every current team, most of the cities they’ve eyed would be too small to support an SPHL team, and the last thing the FHL wants to do is admit defeat and a merger would likely mean them having to take on the SPHL name.