By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
It’s a lesson that’s been learned in cities across the country: having two minor-league hockey teams in one market can be a recipe for disaster.
Toledo will likely get its chance to test that conclussion soon, as the American Hockey League’s Adirondack Red Wings are expected to join the East Coast Hockey League’s Toledo Storm in competing for the region’s puck bucks.
Experts in sports economics agree that it’s dicey proposition to have two hockey teams courting the same fans.
Take for example, the plight of minor-league hockey in Fort Worth, Tex.
Only five years after introducing minor-league hockey to a Texas audience, the Fort Worth Fire had won the Central Hockey League championship in 1997. Corporate sponsors were lining up. The team was pulling in more than 4,000 fans a night to root for their hometown favorites. It was a hockey success story.
That’s all over now.
That same year, a local businessman decided to start a second minor-league hockey team in town, the Fort Worth Brahmas. His first action: signing half of the Fire’s championship team and its coach. The competition between the two was cutthroat. Each went after the other’s advertisers, sponsors, and fans – aggressively.
Both teams are averaging fewer than 2,000 fans a night. At a game last week, the Fire had fewer than 700 fans in the seats.
In contrast, the Rossford site is nearly perfect geographically – at the intersection of I-75 and I-80/90, and only five minutes from downtown Toledo. The arena will be brand new and modern, officials promise, and the quality of hockey will be high; many of the Detroit Red Wings’s current players spent time with the team’s AHL affiliate.
But no matter their varying strengths, both teams would need a miracle to prosper in a two-team town considering the expense and energy needed to win the battle for Toledo’s hockey dollars, sports economists said.
“In economics, we have the concept of dissipation of profits,” said Temple University Professor Michael Leeds. “You see producer making a profit, so you decide to do the same thing. Then other people join in too, and soon nobody’s making a profit anymore.”
He pointed to the example of his hometown, Philadelphia. For years, Philly native looked with envy at Baltimore, where a successful aquarium had helped to revitalize the Inner Harbor neighborhood. Trying to copy Baltimore’s success, officials built an aquarium in neighboring Camden, N.J., and it didn’t do nearly as well – “because there was already an aquarium in Baltimore,” he said.
In a community the size of Toledo, Dr. Leeds said, there likely would not be enought of a fan base to make both teams successful.
“I wish everyone luck, but I think there’s going to be some significant disappointment on both ends,” he said.
Further complicating the battle between the teams in Toledo would be the prospect of a battle between two new arenas.
Although he said he plans to break ground on his new East Toledo arena within 90 days, Mr. Gladieux has not yet determined an exact site, a plan, or financing. He has said he plans to build the arena mostly with private dollars, but some form of public assistance might be needed. Dr. Howard said he boubted a financing package could be arranged.
“I just can’t imagine a bank stepping forward to lend $42 million to Build an arena in a less-than-ideal location with a big suburban development in such close proximity,” he said.
Last week, Rossford officials bought 60 acres of farmland near I-75 and the Ohio Turnpike and then approved plans to turn it into an arena and amphitheater complex. The city’s arena authority plans to float $48 million in revenue bonds to pay for the development. And, the planned arena already has a manager – Olympia Entertainment, Inc., owned by Mr. Ilitch. Although an agreement on the Red Wings team has not been reached, Rossford officials said they expect it soon.