Their names sound more like characters out of a comic book than that of championship contenders. Nor can fans talk about the rich tradition of excellence or the heroes who once wore the uniform.
But say this for L.A.’s minor league sports franchises: Fans love ’em, and the owners believe that profits can’t be far behind.
Executives with all three teams the Long Beach Ice Dogs hockey team, the Lancaster JetHawks baseball club and the L.A. Blades roller hockey franchise say attendance is growing faster than anticipated and expect their investments to break even within a few seasons.
“We expected to take a loss for a while,” said Joann Klonowski, chief executive of the Ice Dogs. “We didn’t expect the fans to grow so fast and to be so passionate about a team that’s not part of the major leagues.”
Minor league sports owners realize they can’t compete with the pros on the talent level. So they don’t try.
Instead, they target the area where they say major sports are vulnerable giving fans the best overall experience for the dollar. The future should be bright as long as everyone sticks to the game plan: entertaining fans at relatively reasonable prices.
“Minor league baseball’s growth is attributed to what we stand for. Our business has gotten better at marketing what we are,” said Matt Ellis, part-owner and general manager of the JetHawks. “It’s family fun because we pack a lot of entertainment value in our product.”
The team, which plays in the California League and is a farm team for the Seattle Mariners, has been in Lancaster for the past two seasons. It attracts an average of about 4,200 fans per game at a 4,500-capacity stadium.
The club won’t release revenue or budget figures. However, it does make enough to afford the city’s $300,000 a year rental for a $9.5 million stadium Lancaster built for the team in 1995.
Attendance is the lifeblood of minor league teams, says David Simon of the L.A. Sports Council. That’s because, unlike major league franchises, minor sports can’t rely on an infusion of TV and merchandising money to help pay the bills.
“The owners are in it for other reasons their passion for the sport,” Simon said. “And, in a lot of start up businesses with five year financial projections, you’ll lose money for the first three years and then begin making money.”
This is the case for the Ice Dogs. In 1996, the team’s first season in Long Beach after moving from the L.A. Sports Arena, the team lost $3 million. Attendance hovered at 2,481 in the 11,131-seat Long Beach Arena.
But owners Maggie and Barry Kemp pledged that they were in it for the long haul after purchasing the team in 1995 for $5 million. The city even pitched in $3.5 million in arena improvements and advertising.
This year, “Hockey at the Beach” as it is promoted in Long Beach, is making a recovery. The team won 70 percent of its home games this season, and is now in post-season play. There were about 6,200 fans who saw their last post-season game which is the amount needed to break even.
“Tickets are doing extremely well,” said Klonowski, who has spent the past 27 years managing sports franchises from soccer’s L.A. Galaxy to baseball’s Cleveland Indians.
And, like the JetHawks, fans are discovering that an Ice Dogs game is both affordable and fun. It cost $77.50 for rink-side seats for the Kings, $150 for the Ducks and $40 for the Dogs. Regular seats in Long Beach range from $7 to $20, she said.
The Ice Dog’s mascot, Spike, routinely catapults t-shirts into the stands. Oversized volleyballs bounce around the stands while a live surf band plays The Beach Boys. Fans are invited down to the rink to race bumper cars.
The games have become so popular that it’s sparked the attention of Jeannie Buss, who manages the Great Western Forum in Inglewood. She’s looking ahead to 1999 when the Kings and Lakers move to a new downtown sports arena.
The Ice Dogs, which have a 10-year lease with Long Beach, would be a perfect addition to the Forum, she said. They would also compliment the L.A. Blades, a roller hockey team owned by her father, Jerry Buss.
Teams like the Ice Dogs “are really where it’s going to be in the future of sports,” Jeannie Buss said. “These are the kind of teams worth putting an investment in.”
The Blades, part of the Roller Hockey International League, started playing at the Forum in 1993. Seats range from $8 to $35, with season tickets priced at about $210 for 12 games in the best seats in the house.
“We think this is going to be bigger than baseball,” she said. “This is the sport that youth are playing right now on the streets and this is what they are going to want to take their kids to when they get older.”