PORTLAND, Maine — Neither the Cumberland County Civic Center trustees nor the professional Pirates — don’t call them “Portland” — hockey team think of their current lease impasse as temporary.
With both sides insisting it’s a very real possibility that the Pirates might never again play in Maine’s largest city — despite doubts among industry watchers that the breakup is permanent — Portland’s biggest arena finds itself with a suddenly empty 2014 calendar to fill.
Can the 6,800-seat civic center, which is in the midst of a $33 million renovation and has resultant bond payments to answer to, get by without the regular week-to-week attraction of the Pirates?
Neal Pratt, chairman of the civic center trustees, said the answer is “yes.” Those who watch the entertainment industry and minor league sports are less confident.
“There are old AHL arenas that have done OK with just ‘Disney on Ice’ and monster truck shows,” said David Broughton, research director for Sports Business Journal, which this year named Portland the 13th best city in America for minor leagues sports. “But you’re talking about [losing] 38 guaranteed home dates.”
On Thursday, the hockey team announced it would play its full 38-game 2013-2014 home schedule in Lewiston’s Androscoggin Bank Colisee, with CEO Brian Petrovek pointedly saying Maine’s second largest city is now “home, not just a hotel room.”
Pratt expressed a similar sentiment of finality Thursday. The two sides remain at odds over whether an April resolution by the trustees, which offered the team the equivalent of 50 percent of the venue’s concession sales revenues, was a legally binding document.
“What do you mean, ‘If things don’t work out with the Pirates,’” Pratt asked a Bangor Daily News reporter mid-question. “Things didn’t work out with the Pirates. … They decided to sever ties with the civic center, and we’re moving on.”
Despite harsh words and an ongoing lawsuit against the venue by the Pirates, the idea that Maine’s American Hockey League team might never again drop the puck in Portland has seemed unlikely all along to many in Cumberland County. Broughton said he still expects a deal to be worked out eventually, and called extreme remarks by both sides cases of “saber rattling.”
But Pratt said the civic center is now actively looking for a new permanent sports tenant to replace the Pirates, a minor league affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes. He said during lease negotiations with the Pirates in previous years, the trustees received “expressions of interest from other hockey teams.”
He said he couldn’t elaborate on where those expressions were coming from, but said civic center officials will in the coming days attempt to reignite those talks. According to American Hockey League rules, a second team could not be headquartered within 50 miles of the Pirates, so if Petrovek’s squad settles in Lewiston or its other arena facility in Saco, the Cumberland County Civic Center would be frozen out of that league.
“There are various other hockey leagues other than the AHL,” Pratt said. “In some fields, some of the financials of those other hockey teams are better than the Pirates.”
The only other hockey minor league with ties to the top-tier NHL is the ECHL, and Broughton said lining up a franchise from what used to be known as the East Coast Hockey League could take “a good couple of years.”
Plus, he said, “most of the minor leagues are respectful of the other minor leagues,” so it’s unlikely the ECHL would allow a team to move into what’s considered Pirate territory. That said, Broughton echoed Pratt’s assertion that Portland is an attractive market in the minor league sports world, and franchises could pounce on the opportunity to play there if a permanent opening came about.
Portland is home to the Double-A Sea Dogs baseball team, an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, and the Development League feeder team to basketball’s Boston Celtics, the Maine Red Claws.
“They’re always right up there [among top minor league cities],” Broughton said. “Portland, the market itself, is a great supporter of all their minor league teams, and there’s really only one other market in the country, Sioux Falls, that’s actually smaller than Portland that can support three teams like that. It says a lot about the business climate of Portland and the civic climate of Portland.”
Even if another sports tenant doesn’t work out, Pratt said the civic center will be fine. He said the venue never consistently made money on the Pirates and called the team “a break-even proposition” for the arena. He said 1992-1993 — the civic center’s gap year between the departure of the former Maine Mariners and the arrival of the Pirates — is looked back on as one of the venue’s most successful years financially.
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.
With the renovations keeping the arena closed until early 2014, the next event listed to take place there is an appearance by the Harlem Globetrotters touring basketball team on March 23, followed by Stars on Ice on April 16. Cirque du Soleil became the best-selling show in civic center history in October of last year when it sold nearly 27,000 tickets to eight performances.
But those who monitor the entertainment industry in Maine say the days of the civic center being able to rely on big-name musicians for a robust concert schedule are gone. And Michael Leonard, a Portland-based consultant and music industry veteran, said acts such as Cirque du Soleil are “shooting stars” that will only be available for a boost once in a great while.
“You’ve got both market problems and the fact that the music industry, in particular, is just not creating acts that sell 7,000 tickets with any consistency any more,” said Leonard, who added that most current top-tier acts expect to draw more than 10,000 fans and will skip Portland in favor of the Boston area or Bangor, where outdoor waterfront concerts can handle greater capacity.
“The age of the big rock star is mostly over,” said Sam Pfeifle, longtime Portland Phoenix music columnist and co-founder of the Portland Music Foundation. “Count the number of acts that can sell out a nationwide arena tour. You can do 10 shows a year like that, but you can’t do 50.”
Pfeifle said the civic center’s best bet for success might be to embrace trade shows and business conferences.
Ideas like that are fine with the trustees, Pratt said.
“This is and has been a multi-purpose arena,” he said. “Our renovation project wasn’t centered around the Pirates. We didn’t put all of our eggs in that one basket of the Pirates.”