The sheer determination and desire to see a local team thrive just weren't enough. A minor-league hockey start-up heads for the penalty box in the sky.
The business: Minor-league hockey team Founded: 1998 Closed: February 2001 Causes of death: Operational flaws; overspending
Professional hockey has been a fixture in Utica, N.Y., since the 1950s. But the recent Utica Bulldogs (1993-1994) and Utica Blizzard (1994-1997) teams flopped financially. In hopes of breaking the jinx, Jacques Tompkins, a sports-loving businessman from outside the region, brought in a number of investors to create the Mohawk Valley Prowlers hockey team three years ago.
After some false starts, notably the departure of CEO Terry Bender, Tompkins took charge of the team. The Prowlers began to show promise. The upstate New York team managed to recruit some quality players and coaches. It sewed up the Utica Memorial Auditorium for home games at a bargain price. It even had the rights to the bulk of concession revenues. Going from last in their division in the 19981999 season, the Prowlers climbed to second place in their second year and reached the second round of the United Hockey League play-offs. The average turnout per game leaped to 3,308, the team reported to the league, up nearly 50% from the previous season's numbers.
No matter. By February of this year the Prowlers, too, were history. What happened? In the unforgiving world of minor-league hockey, in which many teams operate on razor-thin margins, Tompkins's flawed handling of such operational details as customer relations and his heavy spending on players' salaries put the Prowlers in jeopardy, say some observers. "If you want to be George Steinbrenner and spend like money is no object, then you'd better have the backing for it," says Bender.
Tompkins, who worked as a sports-marketing consultant before founding the Prowlers, denies that the team failed because of mismanagement. Instead, he blames the problems on the rise in such costs as health insurance and workers' compensation. "The losses are monumental" among minor-league hockey teams, Tompkins notes, especially if they must make it in an economically struggling town like Utica (population, 70,000), where there "aren't enough people anymore."
By all indications, Tompkins was thinly capitalized, and he acknowledges losing nearly $1 million in the first season alone. He nonetheless spent heavily on players' salaries -- so much so that the league levied a $25,000 fine against him, saying that he had exceeded its $10,000 weekly salary cap by $7,000.
What's more, Tompkins didn't make as much profit as he could have on concession sales because he overspent on merchandise and didn't send enough hawkers into the stands with items like fresh popcorn, according to Ron D'Amore, chairman of the organization that runs the arena. Tompkins says that he bought items as cheaply as possible and took a course to learn how to manage a concession professionally.
Ultimately, however, Tompkins didn't succeed in cultivating the kind of fan loyalty that might have sustained a losing team. John Pitarresi, who covered the Prowlers for the local daily, the Observer-Dispatch, recalls an incident in which Tompkins threw two fans out of the Utica Memorial Auditorium because they were wearing paper bags over their heads to protest the team's poor performance. Pitarresi asks, "Would you rather have those two guys with bags over their heads or two empty seats?" (Tompkins recalls the incident but denies that he forced the fans to leave.) When players went on strike this year to protest not being paid, hundreds of Prowlers fans gathered outside the arena to show their support.
Whipsawed by high costs and low attendance, which plummeted to an average of 1,937 per game this season, Tompkins had little latitude to maneuver. This past winter the Prowlers fell to the cellar of their division once again. In February the team entered Chapter 7 liquidation.
Will professional hockey rise again in Utica? When asked if he would advise another impresario to take a stab at it in Rustbelt Utica, United Hockey League commissioner Richard Brosal had a ready answer: No way.