Can Salisbury be Hockeytown south?

Over the last couple days there has been quite the buzz about Salisbury becoming home to professional hockey at long last, since the alcohol restrictions on the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center are no longer in effect. One story on the WBOC-TV website quotes an official with the Federal Hockey League, which is a lower-level minor league comparable to an independent league in baseball as teams are not affiliated as farm clubs for a particular NHL team. According to Andrew Richards of the FHL, “for a team to survive, each game would generally need to see 1,200 to 1,500 attendees at roughly $10 per ticket.”

It’s interesting that this post will come right after my Shorebird of the Week post; however, I am a much more casual hockey fan than I am a baseball fan. I lived in Toledo, a city with a longstanding minor league hockey history dating back to the 1940s, and attended one or two games over the years (as opposed to perhaps fifty Mud Hen games.) Yet the criteria Richards uses is definitely doable if people are willing to spend a little bit more than they would for a Shorebirds game.

However, if Salisbury wants to have a successful hockey franchise, the FHL may not be the place to be. Formed in 2010, the league has suffered some serious growing pains to get to its current 7-team status. (Six clubs played in 2015-16; a seventh team in St. Clair Shores, Michigan is an expansion team for 2016-17 and the eighth team out of Watertown, New York is supposed to return from a one-year “hiatus” this fall.) The other serious contender would be the Southern Professional Hockey League, a ten-team league that is several years older and seems to be more established. They have an eleventh team that is taking a year off in 2016-17 due to renovations to its arena, so Salisbury would be a good fit as a twelfth team for the 2017-18 season.

But travel would also be somewhat more of a concern for an SPHL franchise – while Salisbury is not in the geographic center of either loop, the closest SPHL team would be in Roanoke, Virginia, which is about six hours away. Its other franchises are in Tennessee, North Carolina, two in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Illinois, and Indiana. On the other hand, there are two FHL teams about five hours away, in Danbury, Connecticut and Brewster, New York. There are other teams in New York and New Hampshire, but the western side of the FHL is Midwest-based with franchises in Ohio, Michigan (2), and Illinois.

Attendance-wise, though, Salisbury could be one of the more successful FHL teams. Both the SPHL and FHL give host teams 28 games, but attendance at SPHL games is comparable to the South Atlantic League in minor league baseball, where teams average between 2,000 to 3,000 a contest. Using Richards’ formula, none of the six FHL teams that played last year would be a success: the closest two were Danville, Illinois, which averaged 1,120 and Port Huron, Michigan, which drew 1,044 per game. The other four ranged from 243 to 774 per game, which meant half-empty (or even cavernously vacant, in Dayton’s case) arenas. Unfortunately for Salisbury, the more successful FHL teams tend to be in the Midwest so we may not have close rivals; moreover, I’d have serious concerns about the entire league going belly-up, which may be why they are pursuing our area so hard thanks to a reasonably-sized arena and presumably hockey-starved market. (They obviously factor in the thousands of NY/NJ/PA retirees living less than an hour away in Sussex County and Ocean Pines.)

So nothing is official yet. But to paraphrase Ben Franklin, we may get ourselves a hockey team – if we can keep it.

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