When Tom Ebright purchased the Skipjacks in 1987, saving Baltimore from another run of puck-less winters, he was radiant with optimism.
Vice president of a New York firm that handled public mutual funds, Ebright brought a sterling business reputation and unbridled enthusiasm to the ice.
If there was a way to make professional hockey viable in Baltimore, he would find it. If there was a way to restore the sport to the glory days of the Clippers, he would embrace it.
Six years later, most of Ebright's optimism -- along with approximately $2.5 million of his own money -- has been drained. The master plan to revive hockey has failed. Various advertising campaigns have come and gone. Marketing concepts have produced little more than a shrug.
For all of Ebright's scheming and dreaming, and despite the jump in season attendance from the 130,000 range of the previous Pittsburgh Penguins regime to the Ebright era norm of 150,000, it hasn't been enough. Not enough to cover operating expenses in the American Hockey League, not nearly enough to color the Skipjacks' bottom line black.
Hockey appears to be on borrowed time here. Ebright and Al Rakvin, Skipjacks vice president in charge of marketing, so far have been ignored and/or rejected by Baltimore's corporate community in a public appeal for financial help. Although Ebright talked last month of giving Baltimore another season to demonstrate renewed support, he now leans toward relocating the team after this season.
"Al and I used to joke, 'Wouldn't it be nice to walk into the Arena some night and be positively surprised?' " Ebright said. "And it hasn't happened. We've now played 230 games, and we haven't been surprised once. Maybe that is the answer."
One more time, Baltimore braces for a future without hockey. One more time, corporate kingpins are being asked to rescue a floundering franchise. This time, it's deja vu for John Haas, a past president of the team and minority owner under Ebright, who describes the current atmosphere as "pre-funeral."
"I feel like I've been reincarnated 100 times," Haas said. "I feel like Tom does. We've given it the best shot we possibly can, and we failed. We came up short someplace. We have a product that people haven't bought."
Three problem areas
Theories abound over why the Skipjacks and hockey are such a hard sell in Baltimore. The three primary ones focus on the team's minor-league status, its current home at the Arena and its marketing muscle.
* There is the "minor-league sport in a major-league city" theory, advocated by AHL president Jack Butterfield, among others. "It's a big drawback," he said. "In that position, we end up on the third page instead of the first. In cities where we are successful, there isn't anything else."
Ebright doesn't agree. "It's an old argument," he said. "The last five years, the most successful minor-league franchises have been in San Diego, Salt Lake, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Atlanta and Cincinnati. Those are great examples of major-league cities where minor-league hockey has been successful. I have to believe it can't be that."
If there is a minor-league stigma, Ebright says it has to do with the identity of the teams the Skipjacks play. Teams in Moncton, Capital District and Cape Breton, for example, do not stir the competitive juices of a city that has gorged itself on major-league fare. "I think our league has made a mistake by concentrating on small markets," Ebright said.
* There is the Arena problem. Some believe the downtown location of the Arena keeps many hockey fans away. Ebright disagrees that it's in the "bad part of town." Located three blocks from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the jewel of the city, the Arena "is in the good part of town," he says.
Ebright said the chief problem with the Arena, though, is its amenities. There are no restaurant or luxury-box facilities that could be used by the corporate community for entertainment.
"I'm counting on the business community believing that building a bridge to the future is critical," Ebright said of his appeal for help. "You can't have all these things die and then try to get them back again 10 years from now, when you want to build a building. People may not want to come back. Look at how hard it's been to get football back after losing it."
* Then there is the marketing situation. The Skipjacks present a paradox here. On one hand, Bob Ohrablo, the AHL's director of marketing, says: "I don't think there's a [marketing] staff in the league that works as hard at it as they do." On the other hand, the Skipjacks rank 11th out of 16 teams in attendance. In the league's biggest market (2.4 million people), they are averaging 3,069 per game.
Terry Ficorelli, once the broadcast voice of the Skipjacks, who now holds the same job with the Cincinnati Cyclones in the International Hockey League, says the proximity of the Capital Centre and the Washington Capitals hurts the Skipjacks.
"I always thought people would rather drive another 35 miles and be at the Cap Centre and watch an NHL game," said Ficorelli, fired by Ebright in 1989. "In Baltimore, we worked very hard with results that were not commensurate to the effort."
Jim Riggs is another former employee (vice president in charge of communication) fired by Ebright who landed on his feet. He is the general manager of the Memphis River Kings in the new Central Hockey League. "Tom gives good ideas," Riggs said, "but the problem was implementing those ideas."
Riggs said he thought the Skipjacks had too many conflicting dates with the Capitals (18), and didn't market the York, Pa., area.
Ad money needed
Bob Leffler, president of Leffler Agency, a Baltimore marketing firm, handled the Skipjacks account for three years.
Hockey is a hard sell, he said, "because it's hard to generate the advertising dollars needed to compete with the higher budget venues like the Orioles. You could take anything -- any sport or entertainment venue -- and if you have enough money, you can make it popular. But you've got to have a lot of money."
Ebright estimates the Skipjacks spend $60,000 in specialized advertising -- community newspapers and cable TV stations -- and another $30,000 to $40,000 on various forms of public relations and game promotion. With revenue approximating $1 million a year, that's roughly 10 percent on advertising and marketing activities.
"We've raised attendance by 25 percent, and that's the result of a successful marketing effort," Ebright said.
The real problem, Ebright has decided, is with the corporate community. He wants 30 Baltimore companies to pay $10,000 for six season tickets, a sign board at the Arena and a company night at a game of their choice. So far, there have been no takers.
"The Skipjacks and Spirit problem is pretty much the same as baseball was 10 years ago," Ebright said. "There was the commitment of a small corps of leading businessmen that more or less decided the community priority in sports. The guarantee of 10,000 season tickets for the Orioles is a great example. The exhibition football game held here last fall is another.
"I don't think hockey and soccer can survive unless the same group of people who made baseball and football a priority make the winter sports a priority."
Baltimore's Ice Age
The history of hockey in Baltimore:
Yrs... .. .. .. ..Team.. .. .. .. .. ..League
'32-42.. .. .. ..Orioles.. .. .. .. ..Eastern
'42-43.. .. .. ..Cutters.. .. .. .. .Military
'44-45.. .. .. ..Blades.. .. .. .. .. Eastern
'45-48.. .. .. .Clippers.. .. .. .. ..Eastern
'54-56.. .. .. .Clippers.. .. .. .. ..Eastern
'62-75.. .. .. .Clippers.. .. .. .. ... ..AHL
'75-x.. .. .. ...Blades.. .. .. .. .. .. .WHA
'76-77.. .. .. .Clippers.. .. .. .. .Southern
'79-81.. .. .. .Clippers.. .. .. .. ..Eastern
'81-82.. .. .. .Clippers.. .. .. ..Atl. Coast
'82-93.. .. ... Skipjacks.. .. .. .. .. ..AHL
x-Team played 34 games