As the FHL lease begins, why Columbus is more than just an expansion team for the league

While the Federal Hockey League season on the ice may be over, the most fun part of the year for us, the off-season, is well underway.

Wednesday marked the first day that the new yet-to-be-named hockey team in Columbus, Georgia assumes the lease at the Columbus Civic Center, officially starting the saga of a new team in a town that had only previously known the Columbus Cottonmouths.

But for the FHL, this is more than just another expansion team. This is an expansion market that is in the heart of SPHL territory, was an original SPHL town, and a market that the SPHL reportedly wanted back, and was also reportedly upset that the FHL was even checking in on the market’s availability.

It’s rare that the FHL flat-out beats the SPHL in a head-to-head competition, but somehow in the case of Columbus, Georgia it did.

And that’s something that we’ve been trying to figure out since the announcement that the FHL lease with the CCC had passed unanimously, just how in the heck did a town that was previously in the SPHL, and again, a town the SPHL wanted back, end up with a team in the FHL?

One thing we know for sure, it wasn’t because of a lack of interest from potential SPHL owners, at least according to the arena’s Director, Jon Dorman.

“While I won’t get in to the negotiations with the current lease holder, I will confirm that there were several groups that contacted us about bringing hockey back,” Dorman told BLH in an email. “Some wanted to rejoin the SPHL and some wanted to bring in the FHL.  We spoke to everyone that inquired.  For reasons beyond my knowledge, all negotiations between potential owners and the SP never seemed to work out.”

That’s kind of a damning statement from Dorman. That the SPHL negotiations never seemed to work out. Weeks later, the FHL somehow found a way to work them out and now has the market and a new team. Everyone points at the FHL as being dysfunctional, but somehow it found a way to get its ducks in a row for the spot, while the SPHL never did. That’s an amazing sentence to type out and think about.

So what in the world kept potential SPHL owners out? Was it start-up costs? We have heard from a few sources in each league that the expansion fees for a team in the SPHL are in the neighborhood of around $300,000, while a team in the FHL can be had for less than $100,000 initially, so there is certainly a big difference there. But one assumes that if a potential owner is wanting a team in the SPHL, they have the expansion fee money to get a new team, and are just sitting there hoping for investors or that the fee comes down.

And it almost certainly isn’t the cost of the arena once you get approved, because according to the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, the new FHL team will pay $3,600 per home game, which comes out to $108,000 for the 30 scheduled home games. That looks like a big number on paper, but cheap compared to what we’ve heard from some teams, who often pay double or more for each home date in an arena the size of the CCC.

Perhaps the previous run in the SPHL had something to do with it, and possible owners and city leaders in Columbus wanted a chance at a team that could potentially be around long-term (the FHL), versus maybe just a couple years (the SPHL)? In that story we linked to above, the previous owners of the Cottonmouths of the SPHL, Wanda and Shelby Amos, said the team NEVER made money. A team in the SPHL can have an annul budget easily north of $1 million, while the FHL tries to operates on around half that budget. Perhaps these potential SPHL owners heard that the team never made money in the SPHL and backed out, or maybe the city’s leaders saw this and figured that the best chance for the team to last was the FHL.

I know we love our local teams and want them to stick around forever, but at the end of the day, a minor league hockey team is a business, and no business owner is going to keep things going while losing a ton of money just for local pride.

Now, there was talk that if the FHL team is successful enough, that it could potentially make a jump back to the SPHL in the future, but we wouldn’t bet on that ever happening. We noted it before in a piece on the Carolina Thunderbirds, and sort of above, but it would require almost doubling your expenses each season. So why would a team go from (potentially) being a big fish in a small pond that makes money and is sustainable, to a team in a league where you might do well enough to break even if everything goes right?

We noted back when the FHL interest in Columbus rumors first started that the league putting a team down there didn’t make a whole lot of sense initially. And the FHL actually beating the SPHL for a hotly coveted market is another thing that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us.

But for the FHL, it’s a massive win. Again, this is a team in the heart of SPHL territory and an original SPHL market, and somehow in a battle with both leagues involved, the FHL emerged. This isn’t just another team on the growing list of FHL teams to take the ice, this is a statement that the FHL just might be more of a threat than everyone, including us, is giving it credit for.

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