Would the Phantoms still work in Philly?

Courtesy of Phillyskyline.com

The NHL is on indefinite hiatus.

It’s hard to forget that there’s no minor-league team just down the street, and across a parking lot from the big empty building that has a perfect sheet of ice laid down with no skaters to stain it.

People want hockey, something to replace the lack of Flyers games, and they want it now.

But you have to ask yourselves, just because you need hockey, will it really work in Philadelphia again, with the Spectrum still standing and the Phantoms taking their turn once more?

Check out the following bar graph:

You’ll notice that attendance figures trended sharply upward, then downward steadily from Season 3 to Season 13. The one spike was the year that certain players came down to help the kids during the last NHL lockout. They went up at the start for one reason and one reason only: the original Phantoms were winners right out of the gate who embraced the old-style Flyers and old American Hockey League mindset of scoring a ton of goals and dishing out a ton of punishment.

These were the days of a strong personal fan connection to the mystique of the Spectrum, and a farm system that was not matched, team-for-team, with an NHL parent. Competition to continue a hockey career and to leap to The Show was still prevalent and clearly affected the demeanor of games in a crowd-pleasing, attention-grabbing manner.

A rivalry with the Hershey Bears was bloodthirsty, to say the least, as the Avalanche and Flyers competed in those days for top billing in the NHL and had prospects ready to skate through brick walls to prove themselves one level lower.

Over time, the product began to wither away. On one hand, the result of an assembly-line approach to developing players who could be sent up at a moment’s notice due to injury, or who could be shipped out even quicker when the parent club took a gamble on a trade for veteran help. On the other, the systematic change from the presentation of AHL hockey from being a junior partner in the Philadelphia hockey experience, to being little more than “family-friendly” entertainment.

They weren’t very good at the end, and it showed at the gate. Philly fans trust the Flyers organization to produce winning hockey at every level, and turned away once that wasn’t the case — 2001-02: lost in first round. 2002-03: out of playoffs. 2003-04: lost in the second round. 2005-06, 2006-07: out of playoffs. 2007-08: lost in the second round. 2008-09: lost in the first round.

Even in that aberrant year of 2004-05, when John Stevens led his kids and some NHL castoffs to the Calder Cup — thanks in large part to a 17-game win streak early on, attendance rose a whopping 706 persons per game, only to sink 805 per game once the NHL returned to action.

Note that the highest attendance of 12,002 per game came in 1998-99, no coincidence the season following a Calder Cup triumph against the Saint John Flames.

In the first four years, Flyers franchise legend Bill Barber presided over a good team staking its claim in a large market, playing in front of fans priced out of the NHL product, waiting to see how this shiny new toy works out. Losing to a bitter rival, in a Game 7, on home ice in 1997 only stoked the fires for Season 2, and the come-down from the championship season didn’t commence until the team went from semifinalists (1999) to not winning a round for the second time in three years (2002).

Once the bloom was off the rose and no more former Broad Street Bullies with winning pedigrees could be found, interest waned considerably. Trotting out the taciturn Stevens, Craig Berube, Kjell Samuelsson and John Paddock to lead the youngsters just didn’t inspire confidence.

So who, as a realistic option for head coach and not just a PR stunt, might goose the fan base into attending if we had the Phantoms back? Current head coach Terry Murray’s technical expertise is tops and his history with the franchise is a winning one, but he’s another personality in the Stevens mold.

Perhaps Rick Tocchet, former Tampa Bay coach and Flyers’ all-time penalty-minute leader could fit the bill. He would be a guaranteed draw as he bridges several generations in franchise history and possesses a rare combo of skill and muscle from which he can draw to teach his charges.

The bigger question here is, would serious hockey fans be able to stand going to a game with almost every minute of dead space and intermissions not geared towards your tastes?

Could you sit there with your friends, possibly with a whole section to yourself, and enjoy it? Would you not be distracted by kids running around who are not paying attention to the game? Will you be able to shut out the two occasions during the contest when the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song was blasted from the ArenaVision speakers with the force of an air raid siren?

I found it completely and utterly unbearable to attend Phantoms games after 2002. I covered the AHL at select times for a small Delaware radio station from 2004-06, and at times couldn’t hear the person next to me in the press box with all the between-action and between-period distractions. The same went for the few games I attended as a paying customer, where a half-empty venue acted as an echo chamber on par with a small rock club. I even turned down a possible date to a Phantoms game in 2007 because it wouldn’t have been worth the trouble.

I’m interested in hearing stories about your own fan experience, to see if there’s any correlation, and what, if anything, you would endure just to attend a hockey game not geared towards its true audience win or lose.

Back to the attendance problem for a minute. There are several factors I’d like to investigate.

First, at which point did the club decide to curtain off the entire upper deck, as shown in the cover photo? That’s roughly 1,500 seats which were never to be sold in the regular season. The up-swing was that it allowed the overall attendance numbers to be skewed positively when matched against percentage of seats sold per night. Still, it didn’t quite mask the sparse crowds that populated the middle level in the best of times. The way this is handled given a level of renewed ticket demand could be a psychological factor in returning fans to the game.

Second, for entertainment sake, let’s say that a new CBA could theoretically untether the AHL roster to the NHL roster and allow for the signing of independent talent without counting against a theoretical cap or contract limits. I’m not saying the organization needs to sign another circus act like The Animal, but it wouldn’t hurt one bit to have a player who simply exists as a “draw.” Likely candidates for the post might be Todd Fedoruk, Riley Cote or Jesse Boulerice.

One big question that would need to be answered is: what would have been the amount of deficit for Comcast to absorb had it continued to operate the Spectrum with the Phantoms, concerts and other events, compared to the operating deficit of something like Xfinity Live! during an irregular business season when either the Flyers or Sixers wouldn’t play a full schedule.

We’re about to find out one side of the equation the longer this lockout lasts.

The other side seems to boil down to one irreversible fact of business: keep winning and keep the hockey entertaining, and the fans will return. The attendance figures, without deep analysis, bear that out. It should follow that if an organization respects its fan base, it will be rewarded, and the Phantoms in Philadelphia clearly let that get away for almost a decade.

  • Mike

    I can’t weigh in on whether the Phantoms can be a sustainable business in Philadelphia, but I will say that I really like minor league sports. I think it’s fun to go to a game just for the hell of it. I don’t mind all the stupid stuff during breaks, sometimes it’s funny. For me, cheap sporting events are a great place to go hang out. Plus, my girlfriend enjoys them so it’s nice to watch hockey together when I’m relaxed. It’s like going to the race track and arbitrarily choosing a horse to bet $2 on…you want to see them win but ultimately are just there for fun.

    • Bob H

      I am a fan of minor league hockey, as a spectator and as a worker. But my biggest problem — and one which seems to give credence to the attendance dip as far as the Phantoms are concerned — is the turning of the minor-league experience into something entertainment-based rather than hockey-based.

      I have no idea if how you feel is the minority or the majority, but I think your view of attending a Phantoms game, and those of others who feel the same way you do, might have contributed to the overall downgrade of the product. I believe that if the Flyers organization — or any other parent organization — cared more about the hockey product rather than affordability and comfort for people simply looking for an alternative source of entertainment — everyone involved will be better off.