Please welcome Ashle Lynn Norling to Bus League Hockey, she was kind enough to attend Saturday’s game in Bloomington and report back from it, she’ll be chipping here in here from now on, be sure to give her a follow on Twitter!
Over the weekend, the Danbury Hat Tricks and Carolina Thunderbirds brought the Federal Prospects Hockey League to Bloomington, IL for the first time. Getting 350 fans into Grossinger Motors Arena each night doesn’t seem like a lot, but it was a success considering the lack of promotion and advertising.
Getting 350 fans into a 6,000+ seat arena again doesn’t seem like much, in fact it seems laughably bad all things considered. That being said, I have heard people say that Bloomington will last one year in the FPHL before folding. That however, is probably the least likely thing to happen. First thing, is once the team gets up and running more in the local area, they (if they haven’t already) will start to be able to look at advertising, sponsors, and push for season tickets. All of these things help build up excitement for the team, way more than three neutral site games probably ever can. (Editor’s Note: Yes, there is still ANOTHER neutral-site game in Bloomington. March 21 between Port Huron and Danville)
And excitement will help build up the team, especially in a market that lost high level hockey for a season. Now, I do want to point out that yes Bloomington has had attendance issues, in fact, probably plagued by them. I have also heard that it was them moving to the USHL that killed the attendance. That statement couldn’t be further from the truth however.
From 2006/07 when the Prairie Thunder started all the way through 2018/19 when the Flying Aces played their last season it was an issue. The attendance dropped every season until 2012/13, the second year of the Blaze, where they gained 244 fans per game. After that, it only increased two more times, once in 2015/16 where the Thunder added 13 fans per game in their second season in the USHL. The last time was actually in 2018/19 when the Flying Aces gained 128 fans per game in attendance. So unfortunately the free-fall started pretty much right away when the Prairie Thunder lost nearly 600/game attendance wise from Year 1 to Year 2.
Again 1,200 per game in a roughly 6,000 seat building may not sound good but keep in mind the costs of running an FPHL club are EXTREMELY low. While the USHL is amateur and all players retain NCAA eligibility by not being paid, there are a lot more things that the team must pay for. One of those is all the players equipment, housing, etc and most teams also have a much larger staff to pay for.
Dubuque for example has a Hockey Operations Staff of 11 people which includes 5 coaches, a GM, an Equipment Manager, along with four other people in different roles. The Fighting Saints also have a 6 person scouting staff which is unheard of in the low level minors. The Saints also have a 9 person paid front office staff, bringing the total to 26 people in either Hockey Operations, Coaching, or FO roles.
In comparison the defending FHL Champion Carolina Thunderbirds have just one full time coach, a trainer, and two bench medics. Alongside those they have just 8 people in the front office for the team for a total of 12 (tops) paid, non-playing employees. This just adds into the cost disparity as dropping between 14 and 16 people you need to pay makes a big difference, along with what you don’t have to pay for when it comes to the players.
The ultra-low costs of the FPHL, reportedly as low as $350k per season, seem more similar to the costs of running a team in the NAHL (Tier II Junior Hockey) compared to anything like the SPHL or USHL. And those ultra-low costs are what will help Bloomington out in the end.
Columbus chose to go to the FPHL because of that, and they are seeing great success off the ice. I only see more markets jumping into the league because of that. Will Bloomington be another Carolina, Elmira, or Columbus? Probably not, but I think with a little work they can draw a healthy 1,200+ per game and be around for quite a long while.