Augusta’s love/hate relationship with minor league hockey seemed at the peak of good times a week ago when a franchise record 3,715 fans attended last Thursday’s Augusta RiverHawks season opener at James Brown Arena.
Two days later, only a little more than 1,500 showed up for Saturday’s night home game.
Such dramatic highs and lows have made Augusta a difficult market for team owner Bob Kerzner, who is trying to navigate his club through its final season of a two-year arena deal. The Florence, S.C., businessman brought hockey back to Augusta in 2010. Keeping the team alive for a third or fourth season, he said, will depend largely on year No. 2, which continues this weekend with home games tonight and Friday against the Louisiana IceGators.
Kerzner said last year’s league-worst average attendance of 1,600 fans per game at James Brown Arena won’t cut it.
“We need to be at about 2,600 – right at the league average,” he said before the season opener. “That’s what we’re striving for.”
Kerzner and his staff entered the season with reason to be optimistic. General manager Mark Richards said the number of season ticket holders is up 35 percent from last year, and the record crowd last Thursday saw the RiverHawks post a 4-2 win over the defending Southern Professional Hockey League champion Mississippi Surge.
“Right now it’s definitely looking better than last year,” Kerzner said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
But the current economic conditions and the memory of an Augusta Lynx team that skipped town in 2008 owing money to season ticket holders and sponsors hasn’t been easy obstacles to overcome.
“We want to put a good product on the ice and see the community embrace us,” Kerzner said. “We’re still living down the Lynx deal. It just won’t go away. I think some people use it as a crutch or an excuse. We think we’re a little more solid in the community.”
Kerzner isn’t a rookie owner, and his past two SPHL teams – the Pee Dee Cyclones and Winston-Salem Cyclones – didn’t last beyond their first two seasons. His desire to succeed on attempt No. 3 has pushed him to take drastic measures, including firing then-general manager Gilles Richards just one week into last season after small crowds greeted the team on its opening weekend.
The front office has a slightly larger staff this year that Kerzner said he hopes will increase sponsorship and ticket revenue. The typical SPHL business plan allows for teams to operate on a smaller budget compared to other minor league hockey teams, and Kerzner said keeping the RiverHawks around won’t necessarily require turning a profit.
“I can afford to lose a little bit, but I can’t afford to lose a lot,” he said. “I want this to work. If we lose $100,000 or $150,000, it’s fine to me. I can live with that. Above that, it’s real money.”
The SPHL season will run through the end of March, and Kerzner said he’ll reassess the team’s attendance and financial situation midway through to get a better gauge on the club’s future. While he’s not ready to commit to a third season at the moment, he also won’t guarantee that things will end in March. A primary indicator will be whether he pursues either an extension on the current lease agreement with James Brown Arena or tries for a brand new lease.
The arena is currently the only operating ice facility in the Augusta area.
“We’ll look at it at the end of January or beginning of February to see what we’re averaging,” Kerzner said. “Hopefully then we’ll sit down with (arena management compary) Global Spectrum to get another two-year lease.”