Losing the Pirates may cost Portland businesses millions

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling (above) confirmed this afternoon the surprising news that the Portland Pirates professional hockey team has been sold and will relocate to Springfield, Massachusetts.

“It’s going to have a terrible impact on our local economy,” he said in a hastily assembled news conference at the Cross Insurance Arena, which up until last week was the Pirates’ home venue. “I talked to a business owner just across the street just as I was coming up. Thousands of dollars impact on him annually not having the Pirates here. … the impact on our local businesses is really going to be tough to take.”

This time, the Pirates’ departure is apparently permanent and they’re going farther away than Lewiston. But we do have some idea of what life in Portland is like without the Pirates, due to a legal squabble over the team’s lease back in 2013-2014, when the team temporarily moved up the highway during a stalemate over, among other things, revenue sharing at the local arena.

Losing hockey will cost local businesses millions

Bill Becker, then president of the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, said at the time the Pirates generate between $4 million and $5 million in economic activity in the area each year over their 38 annual home games, breaking down to more than $100,000 per game night.

Each lost home game equates to the loss of a cruise ship visit in terms of downtown business, Becker said.

“All these local businesses around us get a few extra bucks every night when the Pirates come here,” Strimling said Wednesday evening. “That’s not going to happen. That’s not helpful. That’s going to hurt jobs, it’s going to hurt wages.

“We do have [other] local businesses that draw people in, but this is important,” he continued. “Obviously, when we have 4,000 or 5,000 people coming in here on a given night, it has a real impact on the local economy. When people leave or before they come to the game, they want to get a meal, they want to get a drink [at nearby establishments]. Now we’re going to lose that.”

The arena may be OK, though

The last time the arena — then known as the Cumberland County Civic Center — was facing a future without the Pirates, its overseers were angry about their dispute with the team at the time, but noticeably unconcerned about the venue’s financial future.

Neal Pratt, then chairman of the board of trustees for the county-owned arena, said during the 2013-2014 impasse that the Pirates were a “break-even proposition” for the venue.

Since 1977, the civic center had only one previous winter without professional hockey, and that was in 1992-1993, between when the old Maine Mariners left town and before the Pirates arrived to replace them.

And arena managers used those empty calendar dates to pack in big name music acts. Between the final game of the Mariners and the inaugural game of the Pirates, the civic center played host to concerts by Bonnie Raitt, KISS, Garth Brooks, Bon Jovi, Reba McIntire, Bryan Adams, Guns n’ Roses, Def Leppard, Billy Joel and Kenny G, among others.

“The folks who were around back then will tell you they felt like the civic center did better that year [without a hockey tenant],” Pratt said during the 2013-2014 dispute.

Things have changed a bit since the arena’s more recent go-around without hockey. For starters, the center has completed $33 million in bond-funded renovations, which Pirates leadership fiercely advocated for.

The team had also negotiated a significant increase in its share of the venue’s concession sales as part of its deal to return from Lewiston in 2014, cutting into one of the arena’s best sources of revenue from the hockey games and perhaps tipping the scales somewhat in determining whether those events were profitable.

By leaving just after the season ended, the Pirates have left city, county and civic center officials as much time as possible to either court another sports tenant by next season or turn up the dial in scheduling concerts or other performances for those now-open dates next year.

In 2013, I reached out to David Broughton, research director for Sports Business Journal, for his take on the local dispute and the civic center’s future.

“There are old AHL arenas that have done OK with just ‘Disney on Ice’ and monster truck shows,” he told me at the time.

Portland may have a tough time getting hockey back

At least by next season.

“There aren’t a lot of teams out there,” Strimling said. “We have a good facility, that’s definitely something people would aspire to play in, but if there aren’t teams out there, we’re going to have to market ourselves pretty hard.”

The Pirates were purchased by what Springfield, Massachusetts, Mayor Domenic Sarno called in a Wednesday statement a “broad-based local investor group” with aspirations of moving the team to his city by next year.

Springfield just lost its own team, the Falcons, who are being moved to Arizona, where they’ll be closer to their National Hockey League affiliate, the Phoenix Coyotes.

Could a similar group in Portland form and do the same thing — snatch up another city’s team and move it here? In recent years, there’s been a lot of movement among minor league hockey teams, with seven American Hockey League teams changing cities in 2015.

Pratt did say in 2014 the arena’s trustees had received “expressions of interest from other hockey teams” in recent years, highlighting the city’s reputation as a strong minor league sports city with a high quality of life.

“There are various other hockey leagues other than the AHL,” Pratt added at the time. “In some fields, some of the financials of those other hockey teams are better than the Pirates.”

One of those other leagues is the ECHL, whose teams are also affiliated with big-league NHL teams, but Broughton told me it can take “a good couple years” to line up one of those franchises.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.