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Skipjacks' Ebright means business


The goal, scored by Trevor Halverson, was as pretty as any you would ever want to see. Three crisp passes preceded it, moving Moncton goalie Sean Gauthier so far out of position he could have ordered up a hot dog and soft drink. The fans jumped for joy.

Unfortunately, there weren't that many of them -- fans, not hot dogs -- the announced crowd being 1,896. What the heck, it was Monday night. In a regular season that stretches from early October to the first week in April, it was/is the Skipjacks' only Monday date.

There are as many theories why team owner Tom Ebright found it necessary to call a news conference a while back to discuss the state of his team as there are seats in the Baltimore Arena (both good and bad). Add schedule to the list.

"Face it, it's a lousy team," said a guy.

"They do a really poor job of marketing," said another.

"There's no vets, players you can get to know and follow," chimed in a third.

"A player gets good here and he's on his way to Washington [the parent club Capitals]," was heard a half-dozen times.

On this night, at least, seldom was heard a discouraging word about the Arena. There's a reason.

The place is a fine, bright, clean place to watch a hockey game, especially if we're talking about a team that has to draw an average attendance of 4,500 fans per game to make ends meet. The same could not always be said of the building that started out as the Civic Center in 1962.

The gist of Ebright's state of the team address, offered Feb. 19, wasn't a harangue against the fans, the city, the Capitals, the weather or the Clinton administration. Rather, it was a simple statement of facts coming from a gent whose interest and investment certainly qualify him for some sort of medal for valor.

Forgetting for a moment that the bottom line is the cause and effect for nearly everything that goes on these days, Ebright points out, "The biggest obstacle both hockey and indoor soccer face in this town is getting to the point where they are taken seriously. And, unfortunately, winter sports here have always been treated like outcasts.

"Look at successful franchises in any sport. Nine times out of 10 it's the result of combined business and governmental support. Right now, minor-league hockey is a hot property, the number of leagues growing from 30 to 65 over the last five years."

That's out there. Here, it's the same old story: Tom sits down with his checkbook each spring and writes out a check that contains about five zeros too many.

The economics of AHL hockey in Baltimore dictate that in order for an owner to make ends with enough left over for a bus ride home, the franchise has to draw about 180,000 customers. It has been years since hockey has done that here and Ebright has been charged with the responsibility of covering the red ink for the last six years.

"Despite the losses," he says, "it's not an impossible situation, because we've brought the fan base up to about 150,000 from a low of 110,000 in the 1970s. We're stuck right now, but it's not hopeless."

The answer, though, is the same one as it has been for several past and present owners of winter sports teams. The business community, they all agree, has never really stepped forward.

"It's embarrassing what we've gotten out of them," says Ebright. "While some teams get as much as 75 percent of their total out of corporate sales, we've gotten 5 percent. It has to start with the business community if it [the sport] is going to survive."

Survive in its present state. Which is, in effect, like Triple-A baseball. While attendance of 180,000 makes the nut in the AHL, a franchise in the East Coast League (Double-A) can get by on 150,000, the number of fans who will frequent 40 Skipjack home games this season.

"Coming back [and losing money] in the AHL is one of the alternatives I'm thinking about right now," says Ebright. "Another is dropping down to the ECL." Both would be positive moves in that hockey would be retained here. The negative alternative is to "bag it," said the owner, indicating that he's not really thinking about such a drastic step.

While threats are not the man's style, he stresses that it's essential that the 30 biggest businesses in town show at least "token" interest. "But it's been awfully quiet since I dragged out the facts at that news conference," he said. "If we don't get some attention in the next 30 or 60 days, we could be dead."

Your move, business moguls. What's an active arena worth to you?

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