***Please note this is hypothetical, and there is no evidence that any of the current SPHL teams are even considering this, or have considered this, but just a fun thing to wonder who could potentially be a candidate to join the FHL if it meant keeping hockey going in their respective city.***
One question that’s popped up a few times over the weeks, and especially yesterday after our story on if Carolina had outgrown the FHL, which revealed that a jump to the SPHL would cost a team in the ballpark of $500,000 more each season, is if any of the current members of the SPHL would ever consider dropping down to the FHL because of the potential savings they would see in the league.
And honestly, it’s a fair question to ask, because for a team owner to look at the FHL and see up to $500k less going out the door every year, that can be pretty alluring, and very well could be the difference between a team folding, or having pro hockey continue in the city.
But it’s a very hard sell to tell fans that, “yeah we’re keeping hockey going, but because we’re struggling financially, we need you to come on out and now support this lesser product!”
The first step in identifying if any current SPHL teams might be candidates to join the FHL only requires a look at the current attendance numbers, and we see four teams that are averaging under 2,500 fans a night: Birmingham, Fayetteville, Evansville, and Macon.
Right away, let’s throw out Birmingham. They have some of the most expensive tickets in the league, rarely do freebies or things like $5 night or whatever, and they also play in one of the league’s smallest rinks that also gets TONS of use from other teams, adult leagues, ACHA teams and whatever else, driving down their lease price. Even at 2,312 fans a night, we can assume that they are safe, or at least very close to the break even number.
That leaves Macon, Fayetteville, and Evansville. I would also throw out Macon, because at the moment there is only one FHL team in the south, and that’s up in Winston-Salem, a more than six-hour drive to what would be their nearest opponent, and 11+ hours to every other team up in the north. So unless the FHL suddenly gets major southern expansion during this off-season (and there have been rumors of a team in Columbus, GA but that’s not a guarantee), I wouldn’t bet on Macon making that drop.
So what about Fayetteville? We know the FHL has been sniffing around North Carolina for future expansion, and even without it, having a regional opponent just two hours away would be good for both the Marksmen and the Thunderbirds, and as the Thunderbirds have shown, you can realistically play in the south even with all those trips up north. But Fayetteville is seeing a resurgence at the box office of late, with a crowd of over 5,000 recently on $5 night, and then a crowd of over 2,800 on just a regular Saturday. You can also probably expect big crowds tonight and Saturday against Evansville, so I think they’re staying put for now.
And I think you could also throw in the same reason for staying in the SPHL as Macon, in that they would likely want at least two other southern teams to join the FHL before they would consider it, and even at that, it would be a last resort to keep hockey going in the city.
So that leaves us with Evansville.
And to be honest, Evansville checks a LOT of boxes for potentially joining the FHL. They are three hours straight down the highway from Danville, which would instantly turn into a rivalry, and within eight hours of both Mentor and Port Huron. Yeah, they would have some long trips to Winston-Salem and the teams in New York, but geographically, they fit better than any other candidates, at least at the moment.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Well what a waste for the Ford Center to host FHL hockey,” and you would be right. But. Evansville has something else going for it that the other towns we’ve listed don’t have: A second arena in town that fits the FHL mold. The Swonder Ice Arena, a GORGEOUS facility that has 1,500 seats in the main rink, and once played host to the Evansville IceMen of the AAHL, a league similar to the current FHL. And a smaller rink means a smaller lease, and more savings. Of all the cities we’ve mentioned, Evansville seems like the best fit. But again, that does not mean it’s happening or that the team has even considered it.
Now, the other issue with a team dropping from the SPHL to the FHL, is that there is no guarantee that these teams that are struggling at the gate by SPHL standards are going to continue pull in 2000+ fans a night for the FHL. It is inferior hockey, but it would mean lower ticket prices that might keep so fans around, so maybe these teams do 1,250 to 1,500 if they did drop to the FHL, but there’s a very real chance that things could bottom out, fans stop turning out, and suddenly you’re doing under 1,000 fans a night, which would not be enough to last in the south.
Now, that’s not to say that this couldn’t happen for any or all of the teams listed above, because maybe five years down the line the FHL has six strong teams who are all drawing 1,000+ fans a night, and the FHL has ironed out a lot of its issues that have plagued it in the past, and is a more legit hockey league. But that’s a lot of ifs.
But right now and even a couple of years into the future, aside from MAYBE Evansville, I wouldn’t plan on any team from the SPHL ever considering the FHL, unless it was the absolute last resort for them to keep hockey going.
More likely, is that if southern expansion ever did happen for the FHL, they would try and bring back markets where the SPHL failed, or markets that the SPHL hasn’t tried to put a team in.