Marketing called key to hockey's future in city
By BLAKE SEBR1NG of The News-Sentinel
Multiple choice: the Fort Wayne Komets may be rescued again at the last moment from a) bankruptcy, b) poor management; c) lack of interest; d) the changing times; e) all of the above.
The correct answers don’t really matter. The real question is will this be a temporary' fix? Will the Komets be faced with the same situation again in five years?
After all, Fort Wayne is no longer the jewel or largest city in the International Hockey League. The league now includes such cities as, Milwaukee, San Diego,Kansas City, Pheonix, Salt Lake , and, yes, Albany. Fort Wayne isn’t even the largest city in the state with an IHL team now, falling second to Indianapolis.
The IHL is no longer a Midwest league of medium-sized cities, working together and ignoring the outside influence of larger markets. Toledo, Columbus, Saginaw, Dayton, Lansing, Grand Rapids Des Moines, Port Huron and now maybe Flint, are gone.
Fort Wayne is still a cornerstone of the league, according to IHL Commissioner N. Thomas Berry Jr., but it’s something new ownership will have to work to keep.
‘They’re going to have to really market the product, and I think they are fully
aware of that Berry said. They have high aspirations along with practical experience to make the hopes we have become a reality. Maybe it’s time for young, new, aggressive merchandising, 1990s type people who love the game and will make it interesting for fans to come to the game.”
Berry points to the example of successful marketing plans in Peoria, IL., Muskegon and Indianapolis, all franchises that struggled in recent years until energetic new ideas were tried last season. Fort Wayne can learn from those teams. Berry said.
Last year, the Komets ranked-next to last in league attendance figures with 121,001 fans, ahead of only Flint. Peoria, with a population of about 125,000, drew almost 190,000 fans, doubling its attendance of the year before. Muskegon had 10,000 more fans than the Komets. Several teams doubled and Milwaukee tripled the Komets’ figures.
Will this be the last chance for a Fort Wayne franchise?
“The proof is there that with the proper marketing, Fort Wayne can become a viable market,” Berry said. ‘The product has to be well-represented in the community. It’s not the only game in town anymore and you have to find a way to make the fans want to come.”
"Let’s face it, the league is headed for the bigger markets and the only way to compete in Fort Wayne is with fan support," former Komets owner David Welker said.
"The Fort Wayne market is large enough, but there aren’t enough hockey faas here "
Welker said if the current franchise dies, buying a new one will cost even more than the price because a new team will have to pay travel expenses to the West Coast teams. The current franchise will have the costs grandfathered in -from the Flint agreement.
It will also become more difficult to gain a National Hockey league affiliation in the smaller cities. IHL teams from larger markets will have more money to bid with, especially because seven IHL teams are located in the top 50 television markets.
But, Welker said, if the new owners can hang on, their franchise may triple in worth in the coming years.
Soon the IHL will probably refuse to sell new franchises, and existing teams will be tempted to move closer to larger markets.
"You won’t be able to get in without buying up an existing franchise/’ he said*
“It’s a positive future for hockey*. In Fort Wayne, but it depends on the fans. We’re better off than Kalamazoo, Muskegon or Flint, but we’ll have to work at it.”