RiverHawks owner plans to extend lease with arena

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Minor league hockey might have a future in Augusta after all.

Augusta RiverHawks owner Bob Kerzner has confirmed that he is pursuing plans to keep the team in business past his initial two-year commitment. The Florence, S.C., businessman brought minor league hockey back to Augusta with a Southern Professional Hockey League expansion team in 2010 when he signed a two-year lease agreement with James Brown Arena’s management company, Global Spectrum.

That initial deal is set to expire at the end of the current hockey season, but Kerzner said he has taken initial steps to lock in a new agreement for at least another year.

“We’re currently pursuing negotiations with the arena,” Kerzner said. “We’re looking at a one-year or two-year deal. Whatever the arena wants to do.”

The RiverHawks, who will face the Columbus Cottonmouths tonight at James Brown Arena, have enjoyed consistent success on the ice in their brief history, including a trip to the league finals last season. The team is in first place with a 21-7-2 record so far this season with reigning league coach of the year Brad Ralph and league MVP Matt Auffrey leading the way.

The winning numbers haven’t translated into similar success at the box office. The RiverHawks have remained at the bottom of the league rankings in attendance, finishing last of eight teams in the 2010-11 season.

Augusta’s average home attendance this season of 1,739 fans per game has kept them at the bottom of the league rankings but is still up slightly from last year’s average of 1,637.

SPHL teams in Knoxville, Tenn., Fayetteville, N.C., and Huntsville, Ala., each average more than 3,000 fans per game.

Kerzner said at the beginning of the season that he set the team’s attendance goal at 2,600 per game, a mark the RiverHawks have hit just once in 17 home games. He also said turning a profit isn’t a requirement of keeping the team in business.

“I can afford to lose a little bit, but I can’t afford to lose a lot,” Kerzner said in October. “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.”

Keeping the RiverHawks around for at least another season would be a triumph for Kerzner compared with his two previous SPHL ventures. The Kerzner-owned Pee Dee Cyclones and Twin City Cyclones each shut down after two seasons. The teams failed to average more than 1,500 fans per game.

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