A Bull Market

The slogan of the Miami Matadors, the new hockey team that will replace the Florida Panthers at Miami Arena this fall, is "Pro Pucks, Less Bucks!" This may not be the best place for the team to hang its helmet, promotion-wise. While the Matadors will charge less for tickets than the Panthers, a survey of prices around the Matadors' league reveals that Miami games will be so aberrantly costly that fans may have to augment the terms "icing" and "slashing" in their hockey lexicon with "gouging."

The Matadors will play in the East Coast Hockey League, a ten-year-old outfit that is spreading like kudzu across the South. Originally comprising five teams famous for playing goon-style physical hockey, the ECHL has classed up its act somewhat while expanding rapidly into Mississippi, Alabama, and other former Confederate states. It now boasts 29 teams, including three franchises in South Carolina, three in Louisiana, and -- with the addition this season of the Matadors and the Florida Everblades -- five Sunshine State squads. Matadors seats in the first row sell for $24. The second-cheapest seat is $15. The lowest price currently offered is $10.

Compared with the Panthers, who this year will roll their Zamboni to Broward's National Car Rental Center, that's a bargain. Last season a Panthers ticket in the corner of the rink-level lower bowl at Miami Arena cost $48. A Matador fan can sit in the same seat all season (35 home games) for as little as $333.

But the Matadors don't play in the Panthers' National Hockey League. The ECHL is a developmental association of teams that is, at best, the equivalent of Double A baseball. "It's not as secure a pipeline as baseball," comments Katrina Waugh, who covers the ECHL for the Roanoke, Virginia, Times & World News. "It's not like the Atlanta Braves farm system, where good players move up through the system and may eventually become Braves. The ECHL is for young guys who didn't show a whole lot of promise right away, for a couple of guys who are sort of late bloomers, and for some former NHL guys on their way down, getting old." Only about 40 of approximately 780 current NHL team members have played in the ECHL. Only one Panther is an ECHL veteran, defenseman Paul Laus.

Because of the lower quality of play, ECHL tickets are generally cheaper than the NHL variety. The top price for the (Biloxi) Mississippi Sea Wolves is $15. The cheapest ticket is $6. Rinkside seats for the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks are $15 -- $9 cheaper than the same spots at Matador games. In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, home of the Chiefs, the top ticket is only $9.

Matadors co-owner and chief operating officer Bob Snyder says that prices are determined by the market. "Miami tops the charts as far as market size. Comparisons should be with the bigger cities instead of the Johnstowns and the Roanokes."

Robert Franklin agrees. As manager of the Miami Arena, Franklin helped bring the Matadors to Miami by introducing Snyder to eventual Matadors co-owner, Atlanta businessman Bob Davis. Franklin was unaware that the Matadors charge among the league's highest ticket prices until New Times told him, but he is not surprised. "It's the reality of doing business in a major city as opposed to a secondary or tertiary market," he theorizes. "Advertising rates and everything else are higher."

Hmmm. ECHL franchises in Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; New Orleans; and Jacksonville all charge less for tickets than the Matadors. Often a lot less. Rinkside seats for Jacksonville Lizard Kings games cost $15, with discounts for kids, seniors, and members of the military. The Columbus Chill, which will share a market in 1999 with the NHL's expansion Blue Jackets, charge a top ticket price of $12 for adults. Kids can get in for as little as $5. (The Matadors offer no discount for children.)

Consider this: The Miami team is moving from Louisville, where last year it compiled a 32-31-7 record as the Riverfrogs. The most expensive seat for a Riverfrogs game was $8, or two dollars less than the cheapest Matadors ticket. Kids and seniors received discounts. The top season ticket cost $269. The most expensive Matadors season ticket is $740.

The sharp price difference might be due to geography. The only other team in the ECHL to offer more expensive tickets than the Matadors is the Everblades, a new team based in Fort Myers. Rinkside seats at Everblades games sold for $25. Emphasis on the past tense: All 135 of those spots are already gone for the season. Demand for $16 club-level admission has been so strong that John Ronan, the team's director of ticket sales, has extended the section from rows two through five to rows two through seven. Two months before the first puck drops, he says he has sold nearly 3000 season tickets. (The Matadors have yet to sell 1000 season tickets. The team needs to draw an average of 3000 fans per game to break even, Franklin says.)

Ronan says Fort Myers fans are used to paying the high prices charged by the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. (Tampa is 130 miles north of Fort Myers.) "When I came in with a $25 ticket and only 135 seats [at that price], the demand was there," he explains. He had no fear that fans would balk at high prices for minor league talent. "Hockey is hockey no matter what the level," he chirps. "It's what happens at the game. The music between whistle stops, the dog and pony show on the ice. That's the hockey experience."

Or, as Roanoke's Waugh puts it: "If people don't know they are being screwed, then they don't know they are being screwed.


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