^Good freakin' article.
Here's one on some WPHL action...
Pucks & Profits
The FW Brahmas hockey team may be minor league,but it has to be all-pro to find sponsors, stretch dollars
BY BOB FRANCIS
Fort Worth Business Press
The Fort Worth Brahmas are hard at work though the season doesn't begin until Oct. 18, most players aren't signed and the weather is an ice-melting 100 degrees. The minor-league hockey team’s front office is busy trying to score sponsorships, cross checking other area teams for ticket sales and fighting for mind share among area sports fans.
Minor-league hockey may be a business that involves freezing ice, bloody players, gimmicky promotions and rabid fans, but it is still just a business, said Mike Barack, general manager for the five-year-old Fort Worth hockey team.
"We're just like any business; it just so happens that our business is hockey," said Barack, who has been general manager since 1998.
Minor-league teams such as the Brahmas are an important part of a city's amenities, says Terry Clower, assistant director of the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development in Denton. "They add to the attractiveness of the area and make it easier to attract corporations and individuals," he said.
The largest economic benefit may be more indirect than a major-league team. "They keep more money in a community that might otherwise be spent elsewhere. That's very important," Clower said.
Fort Worth also is home to the revitalized Fort Worth Cats, a minor-league baseball team. The Cats are prospering, averaging around 3,600 attendees per home game. The privately-held Cats will not say if they are profitable yet or not, but the team's attendance makes them the star of the league, according to club officials. .
Improvements to the stadium are planned for next year. The club says it may add a carousel and a picnic pavilion outside the stadium. Inside the stadium, the club plans to add permanent restrooms and a clubhouse for the players. "We want to make this a very positive experience every time someone comes to a game and that's one way we can do it," said Brant Ringler, director of sales and marketing for the Cats.
The Brahmas, too, are surviving financially, particularly considering the team has not made the playoffs for two years, Barack said. The club has not been profitable since coming to Fort Worth, but it has come close, he said. "We're pretty close to breaking even and we have a very nice level of support in Fort Worth, both with the fans and with corporate sponsors," he said.
Management has stuck with the franchise for several reasons, explained Barack. "While we haven't been profitable, our revenues are strong and they've increased every year, except for 2001, which was an anomaly for nearly everyone. Because we've trended upward every year, we've increased the value of the franchise. That's considered very important. Also, for the Central Hockey League, we're in a big market with a large, 11,000-seat facility. They see a lot of value in that as well."
But the most basic reason management has stuck with the team may be the simplest, Barack said. "The ownership of the team loves hockey. They want it to succeed in Fort Worth."
The Brahmas owners are Stuart Fraser, majority owner, and Andy Moog, minority owner. Moog is also an assistant coach for the Dallas Stars.
"It gives us a lot of credibility that we have someone like Moog here. He knows hockey," Barack said. Fraser is a vice president at Cantor Fitzgerald, the firm that lost most of its employees in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. "We have extremely solid ownership and they've been very involved. But obviously, since 9/11, Fraser has spent a lot of time dealing with that," Barack said.
The Brahmas are the latest incarnation of hockey in Fort Worth. The sport came here in the 1940s in the form of the Fort Worth Rangers. The most well-known teams were the Fort Worth Wings and the Fort Worth Texans in the 1970s and 1980s. "There was another club called the Fort Worth Brahmas prior to this, but they really had nothing to do with this organization other than the name," Barack said. That was back in 1997, when Fort Worth sported two minor-league hockey franchises, the Fort Worth Fire and the Brahmas. That lasted only one season and this franchise was born out of that icy tangled web.
Barack was willing to break down his business for this story. Out of a $2-million budget, the Brahmas spend $204,000 on players salaries; insurance and other expenses bring that total to approximately $300,000.
As a member of the Central Hockey League, the Brahmas are confined to spending limits of $8,500 per week for team salaries. That averages $500 per week per player on a 17-player rooster. The salary limitation has gone down the past few years, Barack said, which has saved the company some money. But, like any business, money saved in one area is lost in another; in this case, increases in insurance costs. "Those insurance increases have more than eaten up anything we've saved in the reduction in the salary cap," he said.
Salaries are not necessarily equitable for the players. The Brahmas have signed a "star" or two, including left wing sensation Chad Wollard. "Usually in Double-A hockey, a team will have two or three players that they build the team around. That's the kind of player Wollard is," Barack said.
There are also salaries for the coaches and, most years, a trainer. The Brahmas just signed their coach, Bill Inglis, and assistant coach, Craig Johnson, to contracts for next season. Inglis replaced Todd Lalonde as coach in mid-season after the Brahmas got off to a less-than-stunning start.
Other expenses include anything related to hockey, such as equipment, a bus for the players and travel. The Brahmas also pay funds to the Fort Worth Convention Center and, until this year, to the Will Rogers Coliseum, for their games.
"This will be the first year that we won't play any games at Will Rogers and we're a little bummed by that. A lot of fans really like the Will Rogers complex because it's smaller and there's a history there because that's where some of Fort Worth's first professional hockey was played," Barack said. Scheduling conflicts, such as the move of the Fort Worth Stock Show to later in January, prevented the Brahmas from making any Will Rogers stops this season, he said.
The Brahmas are the major tenant of the Fort Worth Convention Center, paying $130,000 annually, which includes security and ushers. Many other minor-league hockey teams receive a percentage of the concession and parking from their venue, but that's not the case in Fort Worth.
"We've tried to work something out with the city on that, but it hasn't worked out," Barack said. However, the Brahmas do receive space in the convention center that they can sell and can keep the revenue from those sales.
Unlike major-league franchises that receive income from media broadcasts, the Brahmas pay for their TV and radio. Currently they broadcast on radio and some games are broadcast on television. "Fort Worth Community Cable just started doing some games live and K-STR and Channel 52 broadcast some games several years ago," Barack said.
The team is in negotiation for next season's media lineup. "We basically look at the media outlets as a way to sell our sponsors another outlet for their products. If someone wants to advertise at a game, there will more than likely be a media component to that sell. A lot of our sponsors look at radio as a bonus to the signage at the convention center," he said.
For income, the Brahmas rely primarily on ticket sales and sponsorships. Barack says the club is above the league average on sponsorships and below the league average on ticket sales. Average attendance at the Brahmas was around 4,000 last season, somewhat below the league average of 4,401. Barack chalks those lower-than-average attendance figures to the economy and a poor team showing the last couple of years.
"Quite frankly, we simply didn't have very good records the past couple of seasons, so we didn't make the playoffs. That impacted ticket sales," he said. The Brahmas ended last season with a by-any-measure miserable 16-41 record.
Other CHL cities with better average attendance include Oklahoma City and the new franchise in Laredo. "In the other cities where attendance is better, they don't have other major-league sports teams to contend with," Barack said. Laredo was a particular surprise for the Central Hockey League. "The fan response there was great. No one knew how it would go and it went very, very well," he said.
Dallas and Fort Worth have become a mecca for pro and minor-league sports franchises, with top brand name contenders such as the Dallas Cowboys to struggling upstarts such as two women’s professional football teams and the United States Basketball League's Fort Worth-based Texas Rim Rockers.
While the economic downturn has hampered some sports franchises across the country, the impact here has been minimal, said Dave Arnott, a professor of sports marketing at Dallas Baptist University. "This is really the first time minor-league teams have come into an area that already has major-league teams. So far, it has worked surprisingly well," he said.
A new minor-league baseball team, the Frisco Roughriders, a Texas Rangers affiliate, is averaging about 9,000 per game. Closer to home, the Fort Worth Cats recently blazed a Central Baseball League record by drawing 9,216 fans to its July 4th game and show. Overall, the Cats lead the Central Baseball League with an average of 3,562 fans per game at LaGrave Field. Both baseball teams face a similar problem in reaching their potential audience while major-league teams gobble up most of the media bandwidth. "It's a struggle at times, particularly when you're trying to build your fan base," said Brant Ringler, vice president and director of sales and marketing with the Fort Worth Cats. You won’t get them to say it, but the Cats have been fortunate while the Texas Rangers have struggled on the field and in the stands the past three seasons.
Brahmas ticket sales are a product of team performance, too, and scheduling. "If we have a lot of games on Friday during October and November, we're competing with high school football. If we have a lot of Sunday games, we are competing with church events or the Cowboys. Things like that have a great deal of impact on attendance," he said.
Tickets are priced at around $400 for a season ticket or about $15 a game. That compares with a minimum $20 per ticket for a Dallas Stars game. Barack says season ticket sales have risen, but walkup sales have dropped. Most ticket sales are made through group sales, individual sales and voucher books sales, and through the team's corporate care program.
"With the corporate care program, a company will buy a block of seats and the money goes to charity. It's a very popular program," he says. Barack says local companies such as XTO Energy, CapitalOne and Huguley Memorial Medical Center participated in the program last year.
Sponsorship sales also contribute to the Brahmas’ bottom line. Sponsorships are basically hockey advertising, such as logos, banners, blimps, program advertising and media tie-ins. "Two years ago, we set a franchise record for sponsorships by selling $800,000. The last couple of years, we've been between $550,000 and $600,000 in sponsorships. That's about a $200,000 swing and most of that is due to the economy and some changes in our staff," Barack said. Among the long-time Brahmas sponsors are Coors, Coca-Cola, Washington Mutual, Radio Shack, Chandler Auto Parts and Albertson’s.
Companies also can sponsor special nights, such as puck night and T-shirt night. For instance, next season, a bail bond company is sponsoring a promotion where a fan gets to sit in the penalty box with Brahmas players.
To build up its name in the community, the Brahmas have several programs that bring the team in contact with potential fans. One of the most successful programs is the Blacktop Brahmas, inline hockey clinics taught by Brahmas players and coaches at area businesses and shopping centers. The clinics are free for children between the ages of six and 16 and teach basic hockey and skating skills. Last year the program attracted more than 1,500 participants at 32 clinics.
Other programs include Grades for Blades, an incentive program that rewards academic achievement with game tickets, and Healthy Goals, a co-sponsorship with Harris Methodist Hospital that sends players into local schools and focuses on teaching the importance of being prepared to make good decisions.
While some of that seems a little serious, there is plenty of fun to be had at a Brahmas game, Barack said. He lists the top three promotions of the team as the visit by the Stanley Cup during the 1999-2000 season, Jersey Night and the visit last season by the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. "Promotions are key, not just to us, but to any team," he said.
The most controversial promotion was the since-canceled Bikini Night. "Those were the first couple of years I was here and it didn't really work because we're trying to be a family-oriented type entertainment. The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders work much better for us," he said.
Ringler says the Cats most popular promotion has been "You Might Be A Redneck" night. "This year, we gave fans a Whoopee cushion and that was very popular. We'll definitely do that again," he said.
He, too, has seen promotions that didn't quite work. "Little Elvis (a miniature Elvis impersonator) didn't work that well for us, frankly. We may not do that again," he said.
Barack remains optimistic about the future. The Brahmas have done well in Fort Worth and are surviving in a competitive field. Another team in the league -- the Austin Ice Bats -- recently sold for a reported $2.1 million, which shows that minor-league franchises continue to keep their value. The new owners are expected to build the Ice Bats a new facility in the next few years.
That is something Barack would like to see happen, too. "I would support any facility that might be planned for the museum area or the north side that might accommodate the hockey team," he said.
Barack says he would like the community to take a bit more notice of the Brahmas. "Our feeling is that we're a Fort Worth property and we're trying to keep sports in the city at an affordable family price and that we're a benefit to the city," he said.
Dallas Baptist University's Arnott agrees. "Minor-league teams contribute much more than major-league teams in terms of community. We're lucky to have them," he said.