Skipjacks' call goes unanswered Corporate silence miffs Ebright further


Tom Ebright is underwhelmed.

Two weeks after the Skipjacks owner publicly asked Baltimore's corporate community to provide financial relief for his ailing AHL franchise, his phone has yet to begin ringing.

"The silence has been deafening," Ebright said. "Our little plaintive cry for help hasn't found many receptive ears. I haven't had a single corporate person call up and say, 'I had no idea there were problems with this. What can we do to help?' "

Ebright, who estimates he's lost nearly $2.5 million in a six-year battle to keep the Skipjacks afloat, is running out of patience, if not cash.

In a news conference on Feb. 19, Ebright said he would give Baltimore one more season to push attendance figures to a break-even level. But he said this week he has not ruled out the possibility of moving the team at the end of this season.

He likely will base his decision on a luncheon he has asked Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to arrange with the city's corporate leaders. At the luncheon, Ebright will present a package proposal for corporate involvement at the cost of $10,000 per company. In return, each participating company would get six season tickets, a sign board at the Arena and a company night with an unlimited number of seats to a game of its choice.

Ebright hopes to have that audience -- and an answer -- within 60 days. Given the corporate commitment to the Orioles and the city's attempt to get an NFL expansion team, he says he knows it may be a hard sell.

"If the answer is no, I'll pull the team before next season," he said. "I can't wait a couple of years. I can't wait a couple of million dollars. I'm asking them to deal with me now. I'm asking for crumbs off the table."

Even though he has initialed a letter of agreement to continue aworking relationship with the Washington Capitals through the 1993-94 season, Ebright said he feels the NHL team would let him break the agreement.

"If faced with another major loss, I think there'd be flexibility on their part," Ebright said. "It's possible, but not probable. The losses are kind of scary. If we're not going to be able to go forward, then there's not really much difference between quitting now and quitting later, other than a half-million dollars."

According to AHL bylaws, Ebright has a May 15 deadline for announcing a move. He would need approval by 12 of the league's 16 governors. Approval does not figure to be a difficult proposition, said AHL vice president Gordon Anziano.

"Tom's held in high esteem in the league," Anziano said. "He sounded a very definite warning tone [in a league meeting on Feb. 7]. He let all his partners know his situation. He's getting very discouraged."

Ebright, who bought the Skipjacks in 1987 for $250,000 after the Pittsburgh Penguins abandoned Baltimore, said he has lost an average of $400,000 a season. In three of their previous five seasons, the Skipjacks drew more than 150,000 fans for 40 home dates.

Based on annual operating costs of $1.2 million, Ebright says he needs to draw 180,000 a season -- an average crowd of 4,500 -- to break even. A total of 200,000, he said, would make the franchise self-sufficient.

This season, with a fourth-place team in the Southern Division, the Skipjacks are averaging 3,069 fans through 33 dates.

In the five games since Ebright sent out his SOS, they have averaged 3,694. That includes a Friday night crowd of 5,708 -- third-highest this season. It also includes two dates when the team drew fewer than 1,900, one on a Sunday snow date and another on a Monday night against Moncton.

"Tom is totally frustrated," said John Haas, a past president of the Skipjacks and one of 12 minority owners under Ebright. "He's not looking for a financial windfall. He wants to see hockey survive."

Ebright said he has been contacted by three Eastern cities in the past 12 months about relocating his franchise. He said representatives from the Wilkes Barre-Scranton, Pa., area have visited him twice. He declined to name the other two interested cities.

Because hockey is in an expansion mode -- three new minor leagues were formed this season -- Ebright feels he has some viable options.

"Five years ago, if I wanted to move out of Baltimore, I would have had nowhere to go," he said. "This was the only place. I had to make it here. It's no longer the only place. I have three cities right now that want us. It's very tempting to say yes and eliminate your problem and not fight the fight here.

"If there's going to be a fight here, the silence is deafening."

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