By Derek Lampe
Edited by Austin Collins
The beleaguered economy is hurting minor league hockey teams, making it harder than ever for them to attract the financial investors essential to their success. Among the struggling teams is the Columbia Inferno.
The Inferno voluntarily suspended its 2008-09 season to move out of the Carolina Coliseum and into a new arena that is yet to be built in the St. Andrews area near Irmo.
The Inferno plan to resume play for next season, but the slow progress of finding funding for the arena, which will seat 5,300 for hockey and 5,900 for other events, could halt those plans.
"The agreement was with Lexington County," Elizabeth Taylor, executive director of the Irmo Chapin Recreation Commission, said of the Inferno's deal for the new arena.
"The deadline for the owners to purchase the land from the county was July 1," she said. Taylor said the owners of the team, Dr. Ezra B. Riber and Stephen A. Imbeau, have not purchased the land yet but don't face any competition from others seeking to buy the property so the deadline is not official.
The Inferno owners - who declined to discuss the size of the land parcel being considered or its exact location - are optimistic about the new arena, despite the economy.
"The financing is moving along - I wouldn't say rapidly - but it's moving along independent of the economy," said Riber, co-owner of the team.
The Inferno's trouble with building the new arena is slightly different from a broader theme for many teams in minor league hockey's ECHL. For many teams, which have a place to play, the obstacles are attracting fans and financing in tough economic times.
"We have come up with new programs to help the fan who enjoys hockey," said Erik Hansen, vice president of ticket sales for the South Carolina Stingrays. But the Stingrays, also part of the ECHL - the former East Coast Hockey League, "have issues with money being tight," he said.
The Augusta Lynx are reaching out to the Inferno fan base as a way to increase attendance at the James Brown Arena in Augusta, Ga. The Lynx offer Inferno season-ticket holders "Seven for 77," which includes seven select games for $77.
"We have to be very cognizant of prices and what families can afford. We really can't change ticket prices that much, besides one-day deals, so we have to give them more for the price they pay," said AJ Bembry, the Lynx public relations director.
Teams taking time off to build a new arena is not uncommon in the ECHL, said the league's senior spokesman Jack Carnefix. For example, he said, Toledo used to play in the Toledo Sports Arena, built in the 1950s. The Ohio-based team took last year and this year off to build its own arena, which will open next fall.
Among the ways Toledo financed the arena was by selling bricks outside the arena. Buyers could put a personal message on each brick, at a cost of $75-to-$175 depending upon the size of the brick.
A challenge for ECHL teams is attracting businesses to buy group ticket deals, said Bembry, the Lynx spokesman.
"A lot of businesses aren't spending money right now," he said. "So we have tried to reach out to fraternal organizations like the Kiwanis Club, local alumni clubs and Rotary clubs."
The tough economy hurts minor league hockey, according to Bembry and the Stingrays' spokesman, Hansen. But it also has given their teams opportunities to attract new kinds of fans, experiment with new ticket deals and try special promotions.
"Overall the economy has been tough, but we are looking at it as a chance to call more people, try new things, and work with our fans," Hansen said.