When higher, affiliated hockey like the ECHL hasn’t worked out or junior hockey failed to take hold, we’re seeing more towns like Port Huron, MI, Elmira, NY and the Quad Cities region in Illinois and Iowa turn to Single A hockey in the SPHL and FHL as a way to keep high-level hockey in their cities.
And for good reason, it can still be a very quality product if done correctly, and for the owners of the team, it’s a massive savings over the affiliated world of the ECHL.
One question we’ve seen pop up in various places online over the past few weeks is the question of if Wheeling, West Virginia could be a future candidate for the SPHL or FHL.
And a look at their attendance certainly makes that a valid question to consider, as the Nailers rank last in the ECHL in attendance at just 2,043 fans per night, 345 fans per game fewer than the next worst team in the ECHL.
That 2,043 mark isn’t just dismal for the ECHL, it’s on pace to be the worst season at the gate in Nailers history by more than 200 fans a night. The previous low was in 2013-14, when they pulled in just 2,252 fans a night. And the low attendance seems to be a trend. After rebounding from that low in 2013-14, things climbed to nearly 2,800 fans a night in 2015-16, but have dropped every year since then, to this year’s mark of just over 2,000 fans a night.
So with dwindling attendance, and the rising costs of playing in the ECHL, Wheeling, at least on the surface, seems like it could be a prime future market for Single A hockey in the form of the SPHL or FHL. But the team keeps coming back, even with low attendance numbers.
And perhaps even more amazingly, there are ZERO stories since 2012 from news outlets that discuss the team ever being in danger of folding or moving down a league, and the 2012 stories were when the team was put up for sale by its then-owners.
We also reached out to the Sports Editor of the paper in Wheeling to ask if he had ever heard of rumors of them folding or dropping down a league, but he did not respond to our request on either Facebook or Twitter.
And even if Wheeling did want to drop to the SPHL or FHL, does the team and city fit at all, and would there be future success, like we’ve seen in Quad City and Elmira this season? And just how the hell does a team that struggles at the gate so much continue to play in the ECHL? But more importantly, does Wheeling want to drop to a lower league even with the savings?
A couple things worth considering are that Wheeling over the past 18 or so years has just one season where they averaged over 3,000 fans per game, and have been closer to around 2,500 fans per night, so attendance hasn’t really been there since John Brophy was the coach back in 2001-02, and yet, the team keeps coming back. Another is that the team does currently have local ownership in the form of The Hockey Club of the Ohio Valley, and reportedly has what might be the friendliest lease in the league at the Wesbanco Arena, along with tremendous corporate support from businesses in the area.
But even with a friendly lease and strong corporate, you have to wonder how a team is able to keep things going in the expensive ECHL at just over 2,000 reported fans a night.
The answer for how the team keeps going, according to those with knowledge of the situation, “It’s basically a community-run venture. It’s owned by the local economic development authority—who understandably have a bit of stake in having a regular tenant there at WesBanco—and run as a joint venture with the local youth hockey club, who ponied up the money to buy the team years ago (They had been saving to build a new rink, but when the Nailers went up for sale they realized that this had the potential to jeopardize ALL hockey in the region).
“The Nailers aren’t all that Wheeling has, but it’s a big part of the local fabric. Hockey is bigger in Wheeling than really anyplace else in West Virginia”
So basically, it’s the town’s rallying cry to keep hockey in the area, and to help keep the arena busy on a regular basis. And you get the feeling that if the ownership in Wheeling wanted to drop to a lower league like the SPHL or FHL, even just to help keep local and kids hockey going, they would have gotten out of the ECHL a long time ago, rather than keep on plowing ahead.
But let’s pretend they do want to leave the ECHL for the more budget friendly SPHL or FHL, which league fits them best?
SPHL or FHL?
From a hockey history, past attendance, and arena size standpoint, all signs would point to the SPHL as being the more logical fit. They did at times pull in well over 3,000 fans a night, they have a long hockey history that dates back to the early 1980s when the franchise was in Winston-Salem, NC, and the current rink holds more than 5,000 people, right about the perfect size for the SPHL.
But honestly, that’s about it for the SPHL positives. A good-sized arena and in the past drawing over 3,000 fans a night doesn’t mean much to predicting future success. And then there’s the issue of the town: It’s not big and does not at all match up with the current SPHL cities. Wheeling is a town of just over 27,000, and dropping, with a metro area of 145,000 people, both of which would be the smallest in the SPHL by a mile…and it’s also just an hour from Pittsburgh, so this isn’t an area where you’re on an island and there’s nothing else to go to nearby, so a hockey team in Wheeling would not be the only show in town, or at least the immediate area like some of our other towns in the SPHL or FHL.
And then there’s the issue of travel. You’d have Roanoke nearby-ish at six hours away, then Evansville and Knoxvlle at roughly seven hours away…and that’s about it. From there every other team is eight-plus hours away, including over 14 hours to Pensacola. It would be a MASSIVE jump in travel time and costs from the ECHL.
Honestly, if Wheeling ever did make the drop from the ECHL to Single A, I don’t think it would be in the SPHL unless more teams were added nearby in places like Richmond, Baltimore, Lexington or Louisville.
So that leaves us with the FHL, and really, they would be right in the heart of the league if for some reason they did join.
They would be less than three hours from Mentor and probably an instant rival for the Ice Breakers, less than six hours from Port Huron, Danville, and Elmira, while their longest trips would be just over six hours or Winston-Salem, and roughly seven and a half to Watertown, so yeah, they fit pretty well.
Adding a market like Wheeling would be another massive boost in credibility for the FHL, and the town of around 27,000 certainly fits the mold of other FHL cities like Elmira, Watertown, Mentor, and Port Huron, and would have more people in its metro area than all those teams. It would also open even more doors for the FHL in terms of expansion. Maybe Huntington, WV finds a way to get ice in their arena and forms a rivalry there, and those two teams act as a middle ground between the northern teams, and Carolina and other potential southern expansion teams.
But, and this is always the but when we have this discussion of jumping to another league or dropping down to another league: If attendance is bad in the ECHL, and they have VERY friendly prices for the ECHL, how much worse would things get in the inferior FHL? 2,000 fans a night is not a lot to draw from, and if fans come to a FHL game and decide it’s not for them, maybe things get really bad to where attendance drops to 1,000 a night or worse. I know in the FHL there are some teams where you don’t even need 1,000 a night to keep things going, but we’ll assume that Wheeling would run like Elmira or Carolina, where they need over 1,000 and probably closer to 1,250 fans a night to keep the lights on. And as we’ve seen in the FHL, there’s no promises that will happen.
And that’s before we even get into the reputation that the FHL has in the hockey world. Yes, things are getting better and the addition of Elmira has provided a boost, but the ghosts of FHL failures past are still very prominent in hockey people’s minds, and you wonder if a place like Wheeling would balk at joining up with that kind of product.
That said, just based on proximity to the other current teams, if Wheeling did ever decide to make the drop to Single A hockey, the FHL seems like a more logical fit.
And this takes us back to a point we brought up earlier in this post: You get the feeling that if Wheeling and its owners wanted to drop to the SPHL or the FHL, they would have long ago.
Because going back nearly 20 years, attendance has never really been great, and always near the bottom of the ECHL, and yet, they keep coming back and in our research there have been no stories or rumors outside of fans wondering if they would either fold or move to a lower league since 2012.
To summarize, if the opportunity ever came up for the two Single A leagues to snag the market, yes Wheeling could be an excellent addition for either, but a lot has to change in either the FHL or SPHL for that to happen. Namely, the SPHL needs to a few more teams that are closer to help on travel, or the FHL needs to continue to grow and become a more legit hockey league for them to consider either. And neither of those issues are things that are being solved overnight.
That and you need more than zero on the rumor mill other than a low attendance number for them to leave the ECHL. So for now, we’ll just keep wondering how a town like Wheeling keeps putting an ECHL team on the ice with zero rumors of folding or moving despite just over 2,000 fans a night coming through the doors.