Have the Carolina Thunderbirds outgrown the FHL? We asked GM Scott Brand

When you’ve rattled off 17-straight wins, and are routinely packing the house, you can get a little cocky and start flexing a little bit, and with good reason.

The Carolina Thunderbirds are the toast of the Federal Hockey League, currently with 10 more wins than any other FHL team, and drawing the second most fans this season to the tune of 2,564 fans a night.

That hot run on the ice and the packed fans have had some fans wondering if the team is too big, and too good for the FHL, and when the team’s twitter account tweets this at the SPHL, well, it’s not hard for some to wonder if they would ever consider the jump.

 

Well, lucky for us they have one of the most honest and straightforward general managers in all of hockey, so we went straight to the man himself, Scott Brand, and asked: What would it take for the Carolina Thunderbirds to make a jump to the SPHL, and could they do it and survive?

Because frankly, we just don’t think most fans realize how hard, and how expensive it would be for a team like Carolina to move up to the SPHL. We’re not trying to be a wet blanket here, or to knock Carolina or its fans down a peg, but we want to be realistic and to show them that the grass may not be greener in the SPHL, even if it is a bigger and better league.

Before we even got started, and we knew this would be where Brand would start honestly, was the issue of the Winston-Salem Annex, and that it’s too small for the SPHL.

“First road block and biggest issue, our building needs 1,000 additional seats,” Brand said. “No real reason to move past that.”

Well, we can’t just end this experiment and hypothetical situation after 225 words, so we went ahead and decided to grant the Thunderbirds and the Annex a magic genie who has suddenly expanded the Annex to 4,500 seats. So then what happens if Carolina has the proper arena that meets the SPHL’s minimum standards?

Turns out it’s going to get REALLY expensive for the team, and in turn, the fans, for this jump, and that’s even with the team having more local rivalries and no longer having to travel eight-plus hours to every road game.

“You would have $500,000 extra in expense. Probably $50,000 in savings. Travel, etc,” Brand said. “So, how am I going to make up $450,000? And that’s to break even. We may have $100,000 left in advertising revenues. So let’s pretend I get that sold.”

That means Carolina somehow needs to make up a deficit of $350,000, which is right in the ballpark of what we’ve heard the jump would be to go from the FHL to the SPHL, just in expenses. And honestly, that may be a on the lower side of what we thought a jump to the SPHL would cost.

And this brings up what is likely to happen: Either the team needs to suddenly find a LOT more fans without raising ticket prices, fans are going to have to start paying a lot more for tickets, or most likely, some combination of both.

“I would probably sell my soul to get out of this league. But in three years (the) team would be gone. Let’s remember the SPHL was here, they drew 850 right? My next question is why move up?” Brand asked. “Would more people show up? Maybe we are in the right league and other teams are in the wrong league. Would any be able to truthfully say any team in the SPHL, ECHL, or USHL is financially healthy? Or just someone’s hobby that draws under 2,500?”

Let’s start with the more fans scenario. Currently the Thunderbirds average $12.50 a ticket, according to Brand, and we need to make up that $350,000 over the 28 home games you get in the SPHL. So $350,000 divided by 28 home games equals $12,500. Meaning the team needs to pull in an extra $12,500 every home game. So then we take that $12,500 and divide it by the $12.50 ticket average to find out how many tickets need to be sold to get to Brand’s break even number. $12,500 divided by $12.50 is easy math, it’s 1,000.

So without raising ticket prices, Carolina would need another 1,000 fans a night to make it in the SPHL. Basically 3,500 fans a night. Again, the Annex right now seats 3,050 (wink wink), so it literally is not possible with the current arena, according to Brand, to make it in the SPHL without raising ticket prices.

So not raising ticket prices is out the window, at least with the current arena situation, so in Brand’s estimation, what would a jump to the SPHL require? SPOILER: A big hit to the wallet of fans, in a lot of ways.

“It would be $5 a ticket more, I need 30% of concessions on all events, probably start charging for parking,” Brand concluded. ” We would need a state of the art scoreboard and increased advertising revenues. Or someone willing to throw away $350k a year.”

And most owners are not willing to simply eat $350k a season just to keep minor league hockey going in their town.

So we noted earlier that without raising ticket prices, Carolina would need to boost attendance to 3,500 a night to break even, but what about at the proposed $5 more a ticket that Brand said would likely come from a move up? Well, back to the $12,500 more they need at each extra home game, divide that now by $17.50, and you get 714. So even with $5 more per ticket, the team still needs 714 more fans per game, or, about 3200 fans a night, 150 more than capacity (wink wink) at the Annex.

Now, some of that may get negated if the team does get a cut of concessions like Brand talked about, or if the team was able to sell parking at $5 a car, so maybe that number gets dropped down to about 3,000 fans a night. It’s still a big number.

Essentially, the team would need to sell out every home game at the Annex to break even, and need to do it at higher ticket prices, which are going to drive some fans away, both walk-ups and season tickets. It would be a nearly impossible task.

So no, the Carolina Thunderbirds have not outgrown the FHL, and a move to the SPHL is not imminent or even likely at this point, and that’s straight from the figures and data of the team’s general manager.

And you know what? That’s not a bad thing. It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond that has the ability to stay around for a long stretch than to move up for the sake of moving up, and then maybe the team is gone a few years later.

The Carolina Thunderbirds are not too big for the FHL, they’re just moving the goalposts of what it takes to be a quality team in the FHL, and there’s nothing wrong with that. With Carolina and Elmira in the fold, maybe the league finds more markets that are able to do 1,250-plus a night, perhaps even markets from the USHL, NAHL, SPHL, or ECHL, and gets to 8-12 strong teams to become a more legit Single A league.

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