Reading the tea leaves in Reading

Thanks to the Queen of Dekes

As the Reading Royals and Gwinnett Gladiators battled for first place in the Eastern Conference standings in Berks County, 6,345 fans moved through the turnstiles at Sovereign Center to witness the hosts whip the best squad in the Southern Division.

That wasn’t for one game. That was the entire weekend, which featured two wins by the home side by a 10-5 count. So who are the Purple and Black saluting exactly as they make their way up the standings?

Situated literally on the “other side of the tracks” from the main attractions in the center of town, the Royals’ one and only home arena which sits on Penn Street between 7th and 8th Streets holds 8,093 for ice hockey. It has been a long time, too long, since ECHL action came close to those numbers on a steady basis.

Through Friday night’s 4-2 victory over the Gladiators, which pushed Reading into first place in the East, the Royals averaged 3,453 fans per contest after just 2,863 showed up for the first game of back-to-back home dates against legitimate competition. That’s only good enough for 16th in a 23-team league, and actually fell by a couple patrons after that paltry showing.

Believe it or not, the Trenton Titans — Reading’s last remaining geographically-convenient foe and a rival since the club’s 2001 inception while also being the Double-A affiliate for the Philadelphia Flyers — rank three slots lower at 2,969.

But back to Berks County. Here’s a chart depicting average attendance for the entire 12-year history of the Royals from the Hockey Database, with some slight margin for error:

The ECHL only keeps attendance ranking as far back as 2006.

So, in 2006-07, the club saw 5,368 supporters per night over a 36-game home schedule — good enough for sixth in a 25-team league. A slight uptick in 2007-08 occurred, with 5,430 through the turnstiles, again placing sixth of 25. The downward trend in earnest began for the ’07-’08 course, as 5,005 partisans showed up for a rank of seventh out of 23 clubs.

The following season it was 4,943, dropping to eighth of 20, then 4,568 for seventh out of 19 teams, then 4,365 last year which was 10th out of 20 members, and the further drop through less than half a home slate in 2012-13 without an NHL season drawing away potential customers.

For the first seven years of their existence, the Royals represented the Los Angeles Kings organization. Pehaps because it was something new, thrilling, family-friendly and benefitting from another new team in Atlantic City, the already-existing Titans and the Johnstown Chiefs a short way down the PA Turnpike, the early, heady years of the club featured teams that weren’t so good in wins and losses and maintaining head coaches, but rich in spirit, passion and interest.

Local fans and sizeable groups from Trenton and Atlantic City as well as other mainstay ECHL cities packed the Center, and it was an atmosphere of noise and promise most nights.

The Royals first made the playoffs in 2004, and have only finished below the .500 mark on two occasions since 2003. Yes, the ultimate success of a Kelly Cup has eluded the franchise, and there have been three trips to the semifinals (2004, 2008, 2010), but there has been a steady slide in the postseason in the last three years, from conference finalist to winning one round to just showing up with a playoff berth and losing.

In 2008, that affiliation switched to a dual agreement between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs before being swapped again prior to the start of this season to the Washington Capitals.

Yet those I have talked to around the team can’t say that it’s a symptom of organizational change that is responsible; it is a hallmark of small towns throughout North America to put up with teams moving in and moving out, changing players in season, changing rosters in the offseason, sometimes year-to-year.

In a region that is not saturated with the sport, close enough to be considered a market that is served by the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, fans came out in support of players like Ryan Flinn, Barry Brust, George Parros, Jonathan Quick and yes, even current head coach Larry Courville in his first go-round with the club while affiliated with LA and the Manchester Monarchs.

Apparently, the maxim “know thine enemy” as it applies to the Royals and their AHL club in Hershey doesn’t apply in Reading today, despite the fact that there is enough talent on this year’s club that several players could make it up to the Washington Capitals — a long-time Philadelphia rival — in two years or so should the Show continue to exist beyond its current labor mess.

But now, it appears the bloom is off the rose, like it is in many small markets at one time or another.

Despite the rumblings from locals who cite the economy, the fact that high school football just wrapped up, and the usual Holiday season busy-ness, the simple stark fact is that interest is not high enough — and the bottom line keeps slipping noticeably enough — to maintain the Royals much longer no matter how much of a winning attitude they maintain.

If a Kelly Cup couldn’t rescue the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies (who, by the way, draw as much out in Stockton [4,950 through 14 dates] than they did at the Shore with a supposed built-in traditional hockey fandom) after just four years, it’s hard to believe anything other than Reading being on the clock now.

After attending five games through the first two months of the season, I can attest to the actual numbers cited as being lower than announced. Three Wednesdays, one pre-Hurricane Sunday and one Saturday and by the dreaded “eye test,” actual butts in the seats are roughly 70 percent of what’s official. Though I was unable to secure stats splitting average attendance into first-and-second halves, the disparity is troubling.

The ECHL is a strange beast, constantly contracting and expanding. Due to the imbalance of divisions and conferences, Reading and Trenton play 15 times this season, and by the time the calendar switches to 2013 will have already played two sets of back-to-back-to-back series due to the relatively-short 83-mile distance between. That lack of variety, and perhaps a reliance by the front office to let the rivalry itself create most of the “game experience,” has to be tiring for fans.

And mere winning couldn’t save teams in Lafayette, LA, Florence, SC and Toledo, while community support still wasn’t enough to salvage teams in Johnstown and Richmond. However, if there’s enough financial support from external sources, Reading may end up surviving like the Florida Everblades — and who would think a team based in Naples, Florida, right on the edge of the Everglades, could last 15 years? New money and a power base deriving from residents who hail from hockey-rich areas of New England and the Midwest have a hand in that club’s longevity.

Thankfully, nobody’s heard any serious scuttlebutt about minimum season-ticket sales or unstable ownership situations — which have sunk many a professional franchise. At least not yet. And there have been unconfirmed reports that the club lost as much as $300,000 during the 2010-11 season after losing almost $150K more the year before.

As always, the best remedy for disinterest is winning. But if winning can’t create interest, there’s always another market with another eager owner willing to pave paradise and put up a parking lot across from a new multi-purpose arena. Reading has bucked the trend ans lasted more than a decade, but how much longer?

Time to put up or shut up, Royals fans. This year’s team is brewing something special.