Augusta RiverHawks owner Bob Kerzner made an enthusiastic pregame announcement last weekend that a lease extension reached with James Brown Arena and management company Global Spectrum had solidified minor league hockey’s future in Augusta for another season.
Keeping that future from losing more of Kerzner’s money will include a bump in ticket prices.
“Our average ticket prices to season ticket holders is by far the lowest in the league still,” Kerzner said. “But we’re going to bump that up some.”
The Florence, S.C. businessman didn’t go into details on ticket prices but said the decision was part of a larger plan to bring the team out of a financial deficit that has slowly started to shrink since Kerzner brought the team to Augusta in 2010.
When that 2010-11 squad first took the ice, Kerzner said the franchise would be financially stable if it could average around 3,000 fans per game. In the team’s inaugural season, James Brown Arena averaged fewer than 1,700 fans per game - worst among the Southern Professional Hockey League’s eight teams.
Kerzner revised his expectations and business plan for year No. 2 and the team has come closer to the mark, elevating average attendance numbers to 1,853 this season. But that still keeps the RiverHawks last in the league in attendance. Nearby SPHL teams in Knoxville, Tenn., Huntsville, Ala. and Fayetteville, N.C. average more than 3,200 fans per game.
But Kerzner, whose two previous SPHL teams experienced even worse attendance figures and never made it to a third year, said he has reason to be optimistic about Augusta’s hockey future. His comments were fueled by stronger numbers this past weekend, when 2,304 fans attended Saturday night’s game and Sunday’s contest saw 3,034 fans - the third most in franchise history - watch the first-place RiverHawks beat the second-place Knoxville Ice Bears in a wild 6-5 victory.
Kerzner said larger crowds drawn to games due to the team’s success - the RiverHawks have been in first place since late December - and the slight rise in ticket prices next season will result in the team needing to average a little more than 2,000 fans per game to break even.
“We have a shot, before the end of the year, at being close to (averaging) 2,000. So what we’re looking at is moving it another 200 or so,” he said. “We see it can work. That’s why it was so important that with (arena general manager) Monty (Jones Jr.) and Global Spectrum we were able to sit down and make a few things work, because I see the light at the end of the tunnel. But without their help it wouldn’t have been there.”
Kerzner said the one-year lease extension included a few changes from the original deal. The team has had to pay extra fees to use the ice for practices during the week, but that cost will be included in the overall deal starting next season.
“It’s been a good partnership. They’ve been fine. We haven’t had any problems,” Jones said. “That’s why we’ve made some ammendments for them.”
Kerzner said the deal was important for Augusta, considering the economic impact his team brings to the city. He said 75 percent of the team’s $1 million annual budget is spent in Augusta. Visiting teams also fill hotel rooms, and home games give sports fans one more reason to visit the downtown area.
“It’s everyone doing their part to make it possible,” he said. “I’ve put too much work into this to walk away.”